The documentary Herb and Dorothy, part of the Big Sky Film Series, shows the art collecting couple at a Robert Barry art opening.
Every now and then you read in the paper about an old woman donating half a million dollars or so to her alma mater, generally some small Southern college. And it’s not wealthy white widows who must do this kind of thing all the time, it’s librarians and cleaning ladies, the small-salaried and the hourly, often never married, putting aside part of their paychecks their whole lives to make these disproportionately generous endowments. Friends and acquaintances interviewed for these stories often register the same sense of mild shock you find in people interviewed about living next door to recently apprehended serial killers.
I mention this because a number of the artists and art critics interviewed for Herb and Dorothy are quite candid about what an unlikely seeming pair of art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel make on first impression. He’s a retired postal worker, rumpled and gnomish, and she’s a reference librarian, birdlike and slightly cross-eyed. They do not, it must be said, look like glamorous art types.
Yet the Volgels have been a fixture of the New York art scene since the early ’60s, and to hear some of the artists tell it, having this odd couple turn up on your doorstep is the art-world equivalent to opening the door and finding Ed McMahon making out an oversized novelty check. It’s when you know you’ve made it. The Vogels, roaming from studio to studio, gallery to gallery, have been in on the ground floor of every significant movement since Pop Art; their cluttered apartment is literally jam-packed with early minimalist and conceptual works purchased on their daily drop-ins. For the early Minimalists, Herb and Dorothy must have seemed like a godsend: an art-hungry Mom and Pop collector team literally doorstepping struggling artists at their studios, demanding to buy works of art. Not surprisingly, many of these now-famous artists speak wistfully of their first encounters with the couple: “They came cash in hand.”
Yet there is genuine warmth in their reminisces, as well. The Vogels did not have a lot of money, either, and the artists knew it. And the Vogels were not just after a token one piece per artist. If they believed in an artist, they kept right on buying, greedy for new work, gently imposing themselves.
Even as the artists became more established, selling new works in the five-figure range, many of them—Robert Mangold, Sol LeWitt, Lynda Beglis, Christo, Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle and on and on—were willing to sell new pieces at greatly reduced prices to their former patrons. Unluckily for some of the larger-format Minimalists, the Vogels could only purchase what they could tote home on the bus and find space for in their claustrophobic rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, stuffed to the ceiling with books and boxes, about two places to sit down, and—it seems perfectly natural—several turtle aquariums. (How visiting curators fret over those turtle aquariums! As one of them puts it, if one ever sprung a leak, an entire culture of collected work could turn to filthy mush.)
Visually, Herb and Dorothy is not a particularly lively or pleasing art documentary, as the best ones (Purvis of Overtown, Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?) tend to be, or pretty much have to be. There’s a spritzing of stock New York footage (including a rare glimpse into the Cedar Tavern, watering hole of the hard-drinking Abstract Expressionists), but as a visual offering Herb and Dorothy suffers from a murky, washed-out camcorder feel. The story, though, is undeniably interesting, and director Megumi Sasaki handles it skillfully, if a little unadventurously, and most of all unobtrusively—no commentary or meta-documentary, no audible interviewer.
Why do the Vogels do it? One reason is simply love of art, with the slightly more organized Dorothy leading the daily dash from studio to studio and, presumably, also in charge of the childless couple’s visibly few expenses not pertaining to art. Herb, now in his 80s, seizes art with his eyes upon entering a room, intent and concentrating. Dealers and curators listen respectfully to their thoughts. The artists brook Herb’s unsolicited creative advice with unexpected good humor. Former painters themselves, the Vogels gave up making art to collect it, and this sense of failure, however voluntary, might also explain their attraction not only to art but also to the artists, befriending them effortlessly and endlessly.
A clever aspect about Herb and Dorothy is the subtle voice it gives to critics of modern art by airing many of its clichés. There’s a priceless Charlie Rose visit in which Dorothy points out that a Robert Mangold painting appears upside down in the photograph presented for the consideration of the studio audience. She gets snippy about other works, too, like the three-inch piece of plain ol’ rope tacked to the wall and deemed art by Richard Tuttle (Tuttle’s work offers an arsenal’s worth of ammunition for the unconvinced). In-laws struggle to couch their disapproval in politic language.
But mostly Herb and Dorothy is about the love: The Vogels’ love for art and artists, the artists’ love for them, and the love we all feel for people who love perhaps a little too much.
Herb and Dorothy screens as part of the Big Sky Film Series at the Wilma Theatre Friday, June 5, at 7:30 PM. Free.