Herb & Dorothy
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In the early 1960s, Herb & Dorothy Vogel a postal worker and librarian began purchasing the works of unknown Minimalist and Conceptual artists, guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. They proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists. HERB & DOROTHY provides a unique chronicle of the world of contemporary art from two unlikely collectors, whose shared passion and discipline defies stereotypes and redefines what it means to be a patron of the arts.
This unique documentary debut by Megumi Sasaki is a surprisingly entertaining look into what some artists consider a mundane topic: art collecting. Herb & Dorothy transforms potentially dry subject matter with humor and intrigue into a story that will warm artists and collectors to each other, not to mention expose the public to an elusive business. Organized chronologically, Herb & Dorothy profiles the Vogels, a Manhattan couple who met in 1960 and began collecting art with their meager incomes from the post office and the Brooklyn Public Library. Starting at a Robert Mangold opening, the documentary shows the now elderly Vogels in action among artists and curators as they attend events as they have for the past 40 years. The film moves between the Vogels in their art-crammed apartment and interviews with artists such as the Christos, Richard Tuttle, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, and James Siena, who have appreciated the Vogels' loyal patronage. Indeed, footage of artists speaking so fondly of collectors is a rarity. But besides the praise that is bestowed upon the Vogels here, and the historical recounting of how they constructed one of the best Minimalist and Conceptual art collections to date, Herb & Dorothy is strengthened by its presentation of alternative perspectives. Gallerists are interviewed to discuss the problem with collectors buying direct from artists, undercutting the system, so to speak. This capitalist approach seems all the more absurd when one realizes the personal relationships that have been forged between artist and collector. This film shows how the collectors begin from scratch to purchase art, train their eyes to artistic movements, support those movements, and then eventually donate the collection to a museum. It is a story portraying a sheer love of art that transcends the commodification of creative work. Herb & Dorothy is not only a film for art world aficionados; it will surely please anyone in the community who can use a reminder about artistic exchange in an ideal state. --Trinie Dalton
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But if you had seen them walking down the streets of lower Manhattan in So-Ho or Tribeca sometime in the early 1970's (very unhip areas back then) you would have been very puzzled. Why would this tiny couple (they are both short) be walking around these rough neighborhoods full of punk clubs, drug addicts, scary leather bars, empty lofts and all kinds of disreputable people and why aren't they scared?
The reason is because they were probably on their way to see some emerging artist in his workspace or to attend some offbeat gallery show of minimalist art. Later you might have seen them heading back uptown on the subway or in a taxi with packages of art. You would have thought, well, this is just strange enough to be typical in New York.
Here, you would be wrong.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel are anything but typical. He was a worker for the US Post Office, with only a couple of years of high school for education, but he was a voracious reader of art books and an overall intelligent autodidact. She was a highly educated woman with a graduate degree who made a fine career working for the New York Public Library.
But, living frugally on her salary, the Vogels were able to use his salary to buy art. What kind of art? Well, mostly minimalist art from some known, but mostly from unknown artists. What were their criteria for purchase? There was only one, they simply had to like it. That's it.
So, by going to every art show, gallery opening or loft display they were ever invited to and paying for their purchases in cash whenever possible (I know the usually cash strapped artists appreciated that), over the years Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed a collection of art unprecedented in its breadth and scope.
Keeping it all in their tiny rent controlled apartment between their cats, turtles and large fish tanks, they managed to get works from everyone from Sol Lewitt to Andy Goldsworthy. They got photo proofs from Chuck Close and small drawings by Richard Tuttle. They got some drawing designs of the Christo and Jean Claude project Valley Curtain for the price of simply watching the artist's cat while they were away working on a project. Herb and Dorothy seemed to know everyone in the New York art world and everyone knew them.
The film Herb And Dorothy is a documentary from writer-director Megumi Sasaki that I just saw tonight at the Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest 2009 and it was a joy. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, along with the director were in attendance at the screening and that made this an even more special night.
It was great hearing Herb and Dorothy talk about the art that they like to collect because it is very difficult art for most other people. Face it, most people only like representational art. They want their mountains to look like mountains and their dogs playing poker to look like dogs playing poker.
But the Vogels seemed to be naturally drawn to works that simply had line, or color, or texture, or shape or they just liked the concept of the work the artist was trying to articulate.
What makes this film so wonderful and I ultimately hope broadening for others is their simple explanations for why they liked certain things over others and their advice to follow your instincts in what you like when looking at art.
There is an unsavory reverse snobbery that goes on when it comes to the general public and their appreciation of abstract, minimal or conceptual art. Since the works are frequently not immediately recognizable as definite objects, many in the general public thinks that the whole world of modern art is just one big scam.
Many a time I have watched someone walk into a Modern and Contemporary gallery at a quality museum, take a look at a work by Sol Lewitt or Barnett Newman and then say loudly (so everyone else can hear), "What's this? It's just big colored lines on a wall? My kid could have painted this!" Well, first of all, that's not true and secondly, the loathsome spawn from your ignorant loins didn't paint it.
This is just a form of acting superior to the work and the artist (and by extension all those who like this kind of art) by pretending to be sophisticated enough to not be taken in by simple pictures made from colored lines or abstract shapes. I want to grab these people and smack them until they open their minds a little bit.
But the Vogels put that kind of snobbery to shame by simply being open, friendly and honest about what they like, what they don't like and why. Furthermore, they state their thoughts in friendly, easily understandable terms that do not require a degree in art to comprehend. I wish I could be more like them.
Maybe the film Herb and Dorothy will be a corrective to this deficiency. I certainly hope so. Herb Vogel says it best when he states that he just likes these works because they are beautiful to him and beauty alone is enjoyable. A work of art doesn't need to be anything more than that.
According to the film, they have donated their collection to The National Gallery in Washington so every American can now see these great works of art, which also makes the Vogels the very definition of a Mensch.
It is a fascinating warts-and-all portrayal of Herbert & Dorothy Vogel, a pair of working class art collectors who manage to put together one of the most extensive collections of minimialist and conceptual modern abstract art by visiting local NYC artists in their studios (to buy directly from them rather than through a gallery) and driving a hard bargain.
The film does a good job of explaining how Herb & Dorothy got involved in the NYC art world and got started on collecting art back in the 1950s. Although it is primarily shot in the "present" day with reminesces to those earlier times by not only Herb & Dorothy, but by many artists and others who knew them in the art scene, there is some archival footage of a younger Herb & Dorothy at art exhibitions, etc. It brings the viewer from those early beginnings up to the present day, with some very interesting developments in the latter part of the film.
The film is generally flattering - and Herb & Dorothy are a tremendously cute elderly couple - but notes that some artists and participants in the NYC art scene view the Vogels as exploitative, approaching local artists when they are vulnerable by discovering them before they make it big and offering them paltry sums that will barely put food on the table or pay their rent for pieces that will eventually become tremendously valuable. The viewer is left to judge these criticisms for him or herself.
You do not have to like or know much about modern abstract art to appreciate this film, although I'm sure it helps to some extent. As someone who collects a variety of other items, I was able to identify strongly with the Vogels even though modern abstract art is generally not my cup of tea. Seeing the countless boxes and stacks of art that the Vogels accumulated, which had basically taken over their tiny apartment, was a little uncomfortably familiar and really hit home. The film is about art, but the focus is on the extraordinarty lengths to which collectors will go in following their obsession to collect what they love.