Collecting Class

Megumi Sasaki, Herb and Dorothy, 2008, stills from a color film, 89 minutes. Left: Herbert Vogel, Pat Steir, and Dorothy Vogel. Right: Herbert Vogel and Dorothy Vogel.

“EVERY CULTURE NEEDS ITS VOGELS,” says Lawrence Weiner near the end of the documentary Herb & Dorothy (2008). “They’re friend collectors, not collector collectors,” clarifies another artist. Not long after they purchased a small, untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain in 1962, the pint-size duo recognized that what they were buying was better than what they themselves were making as “wannabe artists.” So they lived frugally on her librarian’s salary, bought art with his earnings at the post office, and spent all their time in artists’ studios, galleries, and museums.

The Vogels aren’t chatty subjects, so first-time director Megumi Sasaki interviews a cavalcade of those they’ve collected over the years, including Sylvia Plimack and Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, Robert Barry, Lynda Benglis, and Richard Tuttle. All testify to the intensity of Herb’s looking and his insatiability, and to Dorothy’s sensible handling of finances—the couple always worked on the installment plan and rarely missed a payment. Their rules? The work had to be affordable, and it had to fit into their rent-controlled Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. By the time the National Gallery of Art, as a gesture of courtship, trucked everything to DC to be inventoried, the art crammed into that space filled five full-size moving vans.

It’s clear from the film’s structure and its B-roll footage that Sasaki isn’t familiar with the art world, so art-savvy audiences who know the Vogels’ story will focus on piquant details: Dorothy kept a small Carl Andre copper sculpture in a chocolate box; the couple made weekly phone calls to the artists they were close with; they often paid in cash and left with their purchases tucked under their arms. Yet fascinating stories lurk just beneath the surface. One answers the first question invariably asked by journalists: “How could they afford to be major collectors on government salaries?” In the ’60s, when no one else was buying art by young Minimal and Conceptual artists, the Vogels supported them with their (relatively inexpensive) purchases. After the market drove prices up, it seems, artists supported the Vogels, discounting their work to civil-servant prices. This is acknowledged implicitly when, during a visit to James Siena’s studio, everyone decorously agrees to discuss prices off-camera, and it’s acknowledged explicitly in a comment Dorothy makes: “The collection was built on the generosity of artists.”

In an age of speculative purchases via JPEG image, the rapport such generosity implies is cause for nostalgia. And, of course, it paid off. The Vogels understood themselves as caretakers of the art they owned, conscientiously draping their framed, light-sensitive drawings with blankets and then, in 1992, donating several thousand works to the National Gallery. The museum, to thank them, set up an annuity to supplement their retirement income. What have they done with it? Bought more art, of course.

Herb and Dorothy is available on DVD from New Video beginning December 15, 2009. For more details, click here.