Herb and Dorothy Vogel’s favorite pastime—their greatest passion—has never been about amassing a fortune or hobnobbing with New York’s art elite. In passing, there’s little indication that the Vogels are quite possibly the most famous and in many ways most impressive art collectors in the United States. But Herb and Dorothy have spent a lifetime surrounding themselves with art. In 45 years of marriage, they filled their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with literally thousands of works. It was everywhere: under the bed, in the bathroom, hanging from the ceiling, tacked to every wall and piled in every corner. They lived for art and they lived with it, too.
Amazingly, the Vogels—who say they had barely discussed art during their yearlong courtship before marriage—managed to build their collection on postal clerk and librarian salaries. So when trying to decide how best to share a lifetime of what had inspired them, they decided to donate their collection in its entirety to the National Gallery of Art, the Washington, D.C., an institution they’d visited on their honeymoon. Incredibly enough, what Herb and Dorothy managed to cram into their tiny living space wouldn’t fit at the National Gallery—it took five moving trucks just to haul all of it from their apartment—so the museum collaborated with the Vogels on a nationwide gift program called The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States, which divvies up 2,500 works from the Vogel’s greater collection into 50 mini-collections—one for each state.
As the Honolulu Academy of Art prepares to showcase its portion of the collection, the Friends of Film Friday presents a charming documentary, Herb & Dorothy, which chronicles the couple’s half-century-long relationship with art, New York City and one another.
The film strikes a perfect tone for what is ultimately a love story. Over and over, viewers watch the couple walking arm in arm from one gallery to the next, hear Dorothy affectionately call her husband “Herbie,” and see the two at their home with their pet turtles and cat. Through interviews, old photographs, shared anecdotes and footage of the Vogel collection, director Megumi Sasaki captures how something truly astounding can emerge from the simple love of art, and effectively highlights the intensity with which that love manifests itself in the Vogels.
The documentary includes interviews from artists, art scholars and the couple’s family members. Herb’s sister says her brother was a “zoot-suiter” always giving their parents grief through his disinterest in school and what they perceived as rebellion.
“I hated school,” Herb remembers. “I hated people telling me what to do. I just hated it.”
In his relationship with art, though, there were no rules, there were no constraints on what could be seen or explored. It was merely a question of beauty and, as Herb puts it, “beauty is enjoyable.”
Similarly straight-forward is the way Dorothy sums up their collection—a statement she communicates through, what else, a piece of art she made from simple press-type lettering that reads: “Many things placed here & there to form a place capable of sheltering many other things put here & there.”
It’s worth noting that the artists interviewed in the film consistently rave about the Vogels—and to hear artists so impressed by the passion, artistic eye and aesthetic sensibilities of a pair of collectors is both rare and fascinating. Herb & Dorothy shows that the Vogels aren’t just lovers of art, they are lovers of artists, and they remain close friends with many who have gone on to earn enormous acclaim for their work. Christo and Jean-Claude, popularly known for their bright orange Central Park installation The Gates, have been friends with the Vogels for decades. Christo and Jean-Claude fondly describe Herb and Dorothy’s relationships with art as “compulsive, almost like an alcoholic,” and the first piece they ever offered the Vogels was in exchange for a summer of caring for their cat, Gladys.
The film also raises important questions about our relationship to art both as a society and as individuals. It reinforces the critical difference between concept and implementation and forces viewers to consider the nature of language as an aesthetic (Dorothy likes the word “barbaric” solely for the way it looks, a tidbit that mirrors her take on conceptual art as a whole).
Herb & Dorothy traces the timeline of the NYC art scene through the second half of the 20th century and follows the emergence of pop art in 1962, its effect on artistic accessibility, and how it drove the Vogels’ intense interest in minimalist and conceptualist works—not for the sake of the genre, but because those were the works that were most striking to them—and also the ones that could fit in their apartment.
“They liked the most unlikable work, the most difficult, the least decorative, the most rigorous,” said painter and photographer Chuck Close, who remembers a day when the Vogels visited his studio and were most interested not in the work he had just completed but in the remnants of the process he went through to do so.
Throughout the film, artists speak of the Vogels’ rare ability to see art purely, a quality that many say can only be described as an instinct—and one that allows them to detect value that others might miss. In monetary terms, there’s no question that the collection itself is priceless, but when the Vogels started working with the National Gallery, the Gallery wanted to make a financial gesture—something that would ensure the Vogels would always be able to afford their little apartment, that they would be able to survive should one of them fall ill, that their lives could be made just a bit more comfortable. So Herb and Dorothy did with that money the only thing they knew how. They used it to buy more art, which will only end up going back to the National Gallery and, in the meantime, slowly refill their tiny apartment once again.