Wednesday, July 15, 2009

An unparalleled passion for collecting

What a concept, buying art because you respond to it, not because you think it might be a smart investment. That's what Herb & Dorothy Vogel do, and their approach has allowed a retired postal worker and a former librarian to amass one of the world's most extensive private collections of contemporary art.

Beginning the 1960s, the Vogels visited artists' studios and tried to buy at entry-level prices, often paying for pieces in installments. They refused to allow either modest resources or cultural intimidation to keep them from indulging what became a kind of spectacular passion, particularly for folks who don't necessarily fit an art-world profile.

The story of the Vogels has been neatly assembled in the modestly named "Herb & Dorothy," a documentary that should fascinate anyone who's interested in art, obsession or how to ignore the limitations of a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.

On the face of things, Herb and Dorothy Vogel seem as if they might be the least interesting people in the world, and they probably would have remained as anonymous as millions of other New Yorkers had they not collected art, making their mark mostly in conceptual and minimalist work. We're not talking a few paintings; we're talking more than 4,000 works of art. When Herb and Dorothy donated the bulk of their collection of the National Gallery of Art, it took five moving vans to transport the work out of Manhattan.

Defying all expectation, Herb and Dorothy have devoted their lives to buying art. They have supported artists in early stages of their careers; i.e., before they were famous and their prices skyrocketed. But here's the telling thing: Herb and Dorothy don't buy art as an investment. They never have sold a painting. They've arranged to have all the work they own given to various museums. They're also adventurous. They're willing to acquire work they don't fully understand, realizing that comprehension sometimes develops slowly and that some art is better experienced than discussed. They like what Herb calls "tough" art.

The Vogels collect with a sense of responsibility and stewardship, but that doesn't make their achievement any less strange. Think about keeping 4,000 paintings in a New York apartment that would be cramped if the Vogels had only each other to contend with. Ordinary amenities seem to have become an afterthought for the Vogels, who frequently can be seen sitting at a table that barely fits into the room in which it's located. Aside from turtles, fish and a plump white cat, the Vogels keep company with works of art that reflect a cohesive collecting sensibility.

Not surprisingly, they're known in the art world. To help create a rounded picture of the Vogels, Sasaki interviews artists, including Richard Tuttle, Lucio Pozzi, Christo and Jean-Claude, Robert and Sylvia Mangold and Chuck Close. All of them have become part of Vogel World, and some of them have engaged in regular phone conversations with Herb, who's always eager to know what's new.

An obsessive life -- even one rooted in culture -- can appear bizarre, but the Vogels seem so normal that it's difficult to say that they haven't spent their time usefully. They love looking at art, and have been scrupulous in making sure that the public eventually shares in their bounty. In a time when just about everything is measured in terms of commercial value, the Vogels stand as an extraordinary exception to the crass rule.

During the course of Megumi Sasaki's* fascinating documentary -- which showcases much of the Vogels' collection -- we learn that The National Gallery arranged to give the Vogels an annuity in hopes that they'd normalize their lives. Did the Vogels look for better living quarters or breathe sighs of relief at finally being able to move unimpeded around their apartment?

No. They did exactly what you'd expect from this astonishingly determined couple. They bought more art.

*Sasaki will appear at the Starz FilmCenter at 7 p.m. Thursday (July 16) for a showing of "Dorothy & Herb." The movie begins its commercial run at the FilmCenter on Friday.

1 comment:

Katharine Smith-Warren said...

I took them around to local galleries when they were in Denver in the 80s- speaking at a Denver Art Museum event. They were lovely people and even bought a piece by a local artist. Totally unpretentious- just charming people who love art and artists. how refreshing.
PS I was asked to take them around because the powers that be at DAM were "too busy"- this was before they became so well known.