[13 October 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
What distinguished them from other collectors was that they really wanted to see everything.
“We’ve been married 45 years,” says Dorothy Vogel. “I think I can count on one hand the number of times we were apart.” As she speaks, the camera in Megumi Sasaki’s Herb & Dorothy is focused on the turtles the Vogels keep in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, along with their various fish and cat, Archie. While the turtles seem apt emblems of the couple’s persistent togetherness, their comfort with one another may be better represented in the wider frame, which reveals how the Vogels and their pets all live—surrounded by art.
The first film in the new season of PBS’ exceptional series, Independent Lens, Herb & Dorothy presents the Vogels with a mix of wonder and affection. Everywhere the camera turns, it finds another piece—a Robert Mangold painting, a sketch by Chuck Close, a sculpture by Robert Marshall Watts. And in each piece, the Vogels find a story, not only their understanding of the work but also their memories of how they found it and what they know about the maker. A postal clerk and a librarian, they have collected art for decades, storing and displaying it in their cramped space, happy to feel they have it. Recently, as the documentary shows, they donated the bulk of their collection to the National Gallery of Art, including a component whereby they donate pieces separately to other museums, 50 Works for 50 States.
The sheer size of the Vogel Collection is daunting. As the film shows, it took several large vans to move over 4000 pieces to DC, where the National Gallery staff could evaluate it. Herb and Dorothy wanted the collection to stay together, they say, as it reflects their own evolving tastes as well as a kind of landscape of New York art, as they helped to encourage and promote artists they came to know and like. Though they never had huge money to spend on the art they liked (Herb understates, “I didn’t think money was the most important thing”), they did like it—profoundly. Chuck Close, who calls the Vogels “sort of mascots of the art world,” remembers, “They were buying art for $100, for $50, and you’d sell ‘em art for nothing, not only because they were cute and funny and passionate and enthusiastic when nobody was interested in what we were doing, but also because they came cash in hand.”
The film—which is intimate, respectful, and quite lovely—offers a basic context with regard to the couple’s personal history, through photos and interviews with brief siblings. They met in 1960, they shared a passion for art and interest in learning about it. (“He told me later,” says Dorothy, “He said I looked intelligent.”) While the story goes that he taught her all about “the Impressionists and the Renaissance,” it’s clear their sensibilities and their understandings of art informed each other. They took classes and even painted themselves for a while, Dorothy says (her taste was more “hard edge, his was more expressionist”), before they gave that up and put all their energies into learning and collecting.
It’s their devotion to discovery that shapes the collection. Herb, short and intent, says of his own preference, “I knew something was new. I didn’t know how good it was or how bad it was. I liked the idea that it was something that hadn’t been done before.” The movie uses their interest in “minimalism” and conceptual art as a way to educate viewers (including instructional commentary from Sol LeWitt as to the inefficacy of such terminology).
But if their tastes have evolved over time, their restrictions have not: they have to like the piece and, as artist Lynda Benglis says and, “If he couldn’t carry it home on the subway or in a taxi, he didn’t want it; it was that simple.” Benglis’ witty summary is both accurate and not nearly complicated enough. For even as they had a sense of size and storage limits, the Vogels also collected art in bunches, pieces reflecting a maker’s evolution or even the development of a particular concept. As artist James Siena recalls, “What distinguished them from other collectors was that they really wanted to see everything: ‘Let me see something like that, let me see another thing like that.’” Their interests, he says, makes their selection seem like “a mini survey of my development. I almost think of them as curators rather than collectors.”
However you describe their methods or explain their difference from more traditional collectors (that is, collectors with lots of money, the Vogels do seek out and, especially, seek to possess large numbers of pieces. As Dorothy puts it, “You have a lot of books, but you don’t read them every minute. It’s the same feeling. It’s there. It’s yours.” On one level, she’s describing the essential joy of collecting, but she’s not quite getting at the effects of this joy, the addictive, obsessive effects.
In the case of the Vogels—unlike, say, cat or newspaper or tin can collectors—the result is a healthy, even robust assemblage that they mean to share. Their work has long been public, in the sense that they have made themselves public, appearing at gallery openings, visiting the artists and dealers with whom they collaborate. And they see what they do as collaboration and nurturing, a way of turning their interests to creative ends. Artists’ rep Susanna Singer connects their exposure with what they also expose: “I think Herbie and Dorothy were known by everyone,” and in a going to so many shows and openings and studios and cluttered apartments, “There was nothing they didn’t see.”
And this focus on seeing becomes the film’s most subtle insight regarding what the Vogels do. Richard Tuttle phrases it rather poetically: “Most of us go through the world never seeing anything,” he says, “Then you meet someone like Herb and Dorothy, who have eyes that see something. It goes from the eye to the soul without going through the brain.” Herb & Dorothy helps to make that process visible to the rest of us.