Herb and Dorothy Vogel live on a modest income in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan. They have also amassed one of the greatest collections of minimalism and conceptual art of the 20th century. Megumi Sasaki’s 2008 documentary Herb & Dorothy captures the vanguard spirit of this remarkable couple, who gave up their early artistic aspirations and dedicated their lives to buying art.
How were they able to collect such major artists on government salaries? They bought artists’ work before it was popular, and they came cash-in-hand. By the time they started collecting in the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art were already too expensive, so the couple turned to the still-unpopular minimalists and conceptualists living in SoHo and TriBeCa. “They like the most unlikable work,” Chuck Close tells Sasaki. Their only requirements? That the piece be affordable, and that it fit into their apartment. Early collectors of Sol Lewitt, the couple recounts having to trade an 8-foot-tall piece for a horizontal one, because their ceilings were also 8 feet.
But really, their requirements are far greater than size and price. A “who’s-who” of 20th-21st century artists, including the aforementioned Chuck Close, Richard Tuttle, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Will Barnet, Robert Mangold, Lawrence Weiner, Lynda Benglis, James Siena, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude appear in the film to testify to the couple’s incredible aesthetic sense as well as their tireless pursuit of the new and, frankly, of the enjoyable as well. The film is worth seeing just for the crash-course in contemporary art history, but even more so for the irresistibly charming portrait of the Vogels themselves who, like the art they collected, are true originals.
Herb Vogel passed away in 2012 at the age of 89, and since that time Dorothy has ceased to collect art, insisting that the collection was something that she built with her husband and would be unthinkable without him. But she does travel to see its installation and exhibition around the country, and it’s clear that the Vogels’ legacy will outlive them both on the walls of museums and in the folk history of the New York art world. Herb & Dorothy screens at SLOMA on Monday, March 17 at 7 p.m.