Herb & Dorothy
Directed by Megumi Sasaki
At Cinema Village & The Beekman Theatre
Runtime: 87 min.
When we experience art, it’s usually in a sterile white box or under the weighty auspices of some superlative institution. Perhaps that’s why it’s so jarring, and satisfying, to be allowed into Herb and Dorothy Vogels’ one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which is crammed with paintings, drawings, sculptures and other conceptual works by name-brand artists.
In Megumi Sasaki’s documentary of two of the most important and unusual art collectors of the 20th century, we’re invited to familiarize ourselves with art in an entirely new way. Lewitts, Tuttles, Chuck Closes, Schnabels and thousands more pieces are stored next to turtles, fish tanks and a watchful cat named Archie. Many of the works are covered in dish towels to keep the harsh household light from harming them. When Sasaki cajoles one expensive work to be uncovered, Dorothy resists, not wanting to have to rearrange the towel over the framed piece again. The idea that museum-quality work is reposing in such a fashion is shocking—and satisfying. Plenty of words have been written about the Vogels since they began collecting art in the 1960s, but it’s these images of banal domesticity that are rewarding for any art connoisseur.
The reason why the Vogels fascinate us is because they are inexplicable collectors, having amassed over 4,000 works by mostly Minimalist and Conceptual artists—the sort of stuff that is customarily disliked by most average Americans. In the doc, Chuck Close calls it “the most unlikable, the most difficult art.” Even more perplexing is that the duo accomplished the unfathomable while holding prosaic government jobs: Herb a postal worker in Midtown, Dorothy a librarian in Brooklyn.
Sasaki managed to get biggies to speak on camera about the Vogels as well. So we hear Jeanne-Claude and Christo explain how they traded a collage in exchange for the Vogels cat sitting while they were away building Valley Curtain in Colorado. We watch as Herb negotiates with Richard Tuttle over some pieces that he tears from his sketchbook and begins to arrange. Christo calls the Vogels “friend collectors,” but the interaction between Herb and Tuttle is more than a patron-artist bond: We witness Herb begin to shape Tuttle’s work by arranging the sheets of paper. He tells Tuttle what he thinks is the best way to “look” at his own creations.
And that’s what Herb is constantly doing: looking. Dorothy is the sweet, outgoing one. Although she’s not particularly expansive either, usually explaining that they bought a piece because “I liked it.” Herb is the quieter one, his eyes darting about, analyzing and taking in the details of a work. Sasaki has managed to capture the voracious and confounding attention the two have for art, not an easy task.
Ultimately, the tale is inspiring: Why can’t we all be like the Vogels and become great collectors? The answer may be in the method of their mad addiction. Instead of pleasing oil landscapes or suitable photographs (such as their relatives are shown to have in their organized, suburban living rooms), the Vogels have continually challenged themselves and their tastes, something so few people, let alone collectors, are willing to do. They also never hoarded for the sake of a big payoff. In fact, I found myself continually wishing they would sell at least one piece to be able to improve their meager lifestyle (the apartment is claustrophobic, even on film). By the conclusion of the documentary, after the couple has had their collection hauled away to the National Gallery and decided to donate everything instead of sell at auction, their generosity is moving. But then again, it makes practical sense because, as Dorothy explains at one point, the collection was “built on the generosity of artists,” and they couldn’t honestly part with it in any other way.