Herb and Dorothy

by Adele Melander-Dayton

10 January 2010

Herb and Dorothy Vogel managed to amass one of the great collections of Minimalist and Conceptual art of the 20th century, all while keeping it real.

Herb and Dorothy

cover art

Herb and Dorothy

Director: Megumi Sasaki
Cast: Dorothy Vogel, Herb Vogel

US theatrical: 15 Dec 2009

The tagline for the documentary Herb and Dorothy is basic and brilliant: “You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to collect art”. Herb and Dorothy is the story of the Vogels, a Manhattan couple who met in 1960 and began collecting art shortly thereafter. Despite modest means (she was a librarian, he a postal clerk) the Vogels were persistent and passionate collectors. They managed to amass one of the greatest collections of Minimalist and Conceptual art of the 20th century, all while keeping it real. Herb and Dorothy are the art history teachers you wish you’d had; they’re ordinary people who really “get” the hoity-toity art usually reserved for those with a cool million to spend on a splatter-painted canvas. 

Minimalism is not surprisingly characterized by essentials. Forms are often geometric and/or made from industrial or natural materials. Conceptual art tends to be work that virtually anyone can make: lines on a piece of paper, large swaths of paint, simple, elemental forms. The ideas behind a conceptual piece are more important than the finished product. Even though Joe Sixpack could make it, he probably wouldn’t be able to think of it himself. Dorothy refers to the type of work she and Herb collect as “tough art”. 

The Vogels’ romance was always linked to the art world. When they first started dating, Herb took Dorothy to gallery openings more often than he took her dancing. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, both Vogels were painters—they quit when they decided others were doing better work than they were, and became collectors. To hear Dorothy Vogel describe it, there were only two rules when it came to purchasing a piece: 1. they had to be able to afford it, and 2. it had to fit into their apartment.

Herb’s salary was for buying art, while Dorothy’s covered living expenses. These parameters meant that the Vogels collected a lot of drawings, and naturally, many smaller works of art. Their apartment is crammed with Chuck Close sketches, Donald Judd sculptures, and even a couple site-specific works: Andy Goldsworthy painted directly on their hallway wall. (They now keep this wall covered with a blanket to protect it for future generations, and it’s only with coaxing that they take down the covering for the camera.)

The tone of Herb and Dorothy is refreshing and upbeat. Producer and director Megumi Sasaki only briefly highlights the difficulties Herb and Dorothy encountered (dealings with artists, dealers and curators, mostly about money) perhaps because they didn’t just have very many. The decorated artists and distinguished collectors interviewed for the film are all fond of the Vogels. Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth notes that the Vogel collection is based on the generosity of artists. Artists Christo and Jean-Claude even negotiated a trade with Herb and Dorothy—they received a collage of the installation Valley Curtain in exchange for looking after Christo’s cat Galdys one summer.

And it’s not difficult to understand why so many Minimalists and Coneptualists were willing to bend the rules and extend themselves to the Vogels. As Dorothy points out, both minimalism and conceptualism were not immediately popular, and therefore didn’t sell very well. But even more than the Vogels collecting at the right time, before mid-century art really took off, it’s more that Herb and Dorothy are just plain lovely. I’d go so far as to say totally adorable.

Their enthusiasm for the work of Luco Pissi, Robert Parry, Lynda Baglis, James Siena, Robert Mangold, Chuck Close (all interviewed for the film) and so many others is palpable. Herb and Dorothy aren’t faking passion to appear sophisticated or elitist or to gain status—they really like this stuff. And unlike so many contemporary art lovers, the Vogels can articulate exactly why they like a piece—even if the work in question is a piece of rubber their in-laws mistake for a doormat.

“Pretentious” is quite possibly the adjective most often applied to conceptual and minimalist art. What makes Dorothy and Herb so special isn’t that they collected important art with limited means, though this is remarkable. Herb and Dorothy are set apart because they collect art without pretension. Herb dropped out of high school and taught himself art history through books at the library. Dorothy came from a small town in upstate New York and didn’t visit many museums until she was in her 20s. Yet they’re more informed about art and have more direct contact with artists than countless wealthier collectors.

Herb and Dorothy represent what art collectors can and should be. If minimalism and conceptualism is the art of the people, then they have found their ideal audience in the Vogels.

Further demonstrating their commitment to public art, the Vogels donated their entire collection to the National Gallery in Washington, DC, where they spent most of their honeymoon. Of the 2,000 works Herb and Dorothy have collected, 1,000 will be absorbed by the National Gallery. The others will likely tour the country as an exhibition providing Americans with a snapshot of the movements they represent, and of the couple that assembled the collection.

Herb and Dorothy live a simple life. They have no children, but are fanatically devoted to their flat-faced cats and many tropical fish. Now in their 70s and 80s, the Vogels are granted the unique privilege of wider acknowledgement that their life’s work has mattered: As Dorothy says: “No kids, but we had the artwork, a lot of cats, turtles, and fish. And we had each other”. 

The special features include deleted scenes, festival appearances, the theatrical premier and theatrical trailers. Deleted scenes include Dorothy returning to the Brooklyn Public Library, additional interviews with artists, and the Vogels discussing art auctions. These scenes are in keeping with the rest of the film; one gets the sense that they were cut purely for length.  Herb and Dorothy show up to the theatrical premier in New York city in a stretch limo, with many of the artists they collect waiting for them.

Herb and Dorothy


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