“Most of us go through the world, never seeing anything. Then you meet somebody like Herb and Dorothy, who have eyes that see.” —Richard Tuttle, artistHe was a postal worker. She was a librarian. Together they amassed one of the most important contemporary art collections in the world. HERB & DOROTHY tells the extraordinary tale of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a seemingly ordinary couple who filled their humble one-bedroom New York apartment with more than 4,000 works of art over a 45-year period. Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki turns her lens on the Vogels during a critical period of transition for the couple and their cherished collection.
From the earliest days of their marriage, the Vogels delighted in art. While working the midnight shift at the post office, Herb studied by day at the Institute of Fine Arts. Dorothy soon followed suit and began taking classes in painting and drawing. But ultimately, Dorothy confesses, they were “wannabe artists” and quickly gave up their own ambitions when they realized the joys of collecting.
Despite their modest income, the two began acquiring work that was undiscovered or unappreciated in the early 1960s, primarily Minimalist and Conceptual art by such visionaries as Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle, Sol LeWitt, Christo, Lynda Benglis and many other artists who are featured in the film. The work was mostly non-decorative, evoking descriptors like “daring” and “rigorous.” In their collecting, Herb and Dorothy adhered to strict guidelines—they would live on Dorothy’s salary and devote Herb’s income to purchasing art. While reflecting their adventurous taste, the collection would need to conform to practical limitations of affordability and space. One artist recalls that the Vogels would only buy pieces they could carry home on the subway or in a taxi.
Diminutive and unassuming, the two became a fixture on the New York art scene, attending nightly gallery events and befriending many of the artists whose work they collected. Artist Chuck Close affectionately refers to the couple as the “mascots of the art world.” Collaborators Christo and Jeanne-Claude recall how Herb and Dorothy acquired a work of theirs in exchange for cat-sitting. By the early 1990s, the Vogels’ collection filled every corner of their living space, from the bathroom to the kitchen, floor to ceiling. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. The place was bursting at the seams, and something had to be done. Courted by every major museum, the couple astounded the art world by transferring their entire collection—worth several million dollars—to the National Gallery of Art.
As government workers themselves, they liked the idea of sharing their prized pieces with the American people. After weeks of packing, shippers carted away an astounding five full-sized moving trucks of paintings, drawings and sculptures from the tiny apartment. Today, still in love with each other and with art, Herb and Dorothy live in the same apartment, with their pet turtles, fish and cat. The once completely emptied space is again filled with art.
Update: In August 2009, filmmaker Megumi Sasaki reported that Herb and Dorothy had finally stopped adding to their collection. In 2008, they began distributing work through their national gift project, The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States. Although they don’t attend gallery or museum openings as much due to Herb’s health, the couple traveled with the film to many film festivals and screenings, meeting and interacting with the audience.