In the early 1960s, postal worker Herb Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy, began collecting modern art. You might characterize the Manhattanites as model collectors, yet Megumi Sasaki’s documentary about them is a model of cautiousness—a careful, conscientiously put together inventory that lists the goods without offering much analysis. The Vogels took risks, Sasaki doesn’t. Thanks to the couple’s visibility within the New York art scene, Herb and Dorothy will prosper at the two Manhattan theaters in which it opens.
Its value will rise during a national rollout only if provincial arts patrons and pooh-bahs find the Vogel’s example heartening in these tough economic times. They ought to since it’s unlikely anyone, certainly of the Vogel’s means, will ever equal their achievement when considered quantitatively in relation to one or two art movements.
Three ideas guided the Vogels as they amassed their collection of Minimalist and Conceptual art: they bought what they liked, what they could afford and what fit in their one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment. Given their limited budget (they lived off Dorothy’s salary and used Herb’s for acquisitions), there had to be more to story. Indeed, along with tirelessness and dedication, relationships with the artists are what enabled to the collection to be built. In the majority of cases, H&D got in on the ground floor by going directly to the source. Herb worked the night shift sorting mail and during the day, the inseparable, childless couple would visit artists in their studios, procuring pieces then lugging them home on the subway or in taxis.
They became patrons in the sense they paid cash (although one time they cat-sitted in exchange for a piece) and because they nurtured artists, who genuinely valued their input and friendship. The list includes Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Lucio Pozzi, Christo and Jean-Claude, James Siena and Will Barnett. Herb, who never graduated high school, taught himself about art and doesn’t subscribe to any theories or follow any externally imposed rules. Pozzi likens him to a “hound” or “truffle-hunting dog” who lunges at what he likes. Dorothy’s approach is less visceral and more cautiously contemplative.
The weakness of the film is that it doesn’t put the Vogel collection into enough context qualitatively speaking; it doesn’t go much beyond a cursory survey of the names and schools represented. How discerning were the Vogels? What does their taste tell us? The biographical information included is fine as far as it goes and testimonials from a few of the artists suggest they had a good eye, but some independent corroboration would help. Conspicuously, no art historian or curator addresses the quality of the collection as a whole or speaks about individual pieces. We hear no opinions about whether it contains important work from the artists or schools represented. Fairly or unfairly, one suspects the collection is mostly comprised of minor works, studies and discards.
Once you get past the fact that the Vogels are nevertheless an “astounding phenomenon,” as one talking head puts it, you’re left with the artworks themselves. Sasaki understands this and builds some narrative excitement by chronicling the disposition of the collection as the elderly Vogels slowed down in recent years. Stuffed into their cramped apartment, the collection was in jeopardy, and so the Vogels negotiated an innovative deal to donate 4,782 pieces (five moving vans worth of art) to a major institution.
Fascinating as this is, I was left a bit frustrated by Sasaki’s reluctance to wade into more tendentious and difficult theoretical waters. It may have something to with the filmmaker’s determination to respect her modest subject’s wishes, specifically their reticence to analyze their acquisitions. Yet her movie is in danger of representing them as cute and cuddly curiosities—nice, enthusiastic civil servants who were in the right place at the right time, cash in hand. Herb and Dorothy certainly proves there’s more than one way to be an art collector. It just doesn’t probe deeply enough and ask thorny questions about the nature of collecting and the nature of art, and how they relate to one another.
Director/Producer: Megumi Sasaki
Running time: 89 min
Release date: June 5 (NY)