Herb Vogel doing his laser gaze thing on a John Chamberlain sculpture, part of the Herb and Dorothy Vogel collection that was donated to the National Museum of Art.

I’ve been thinking about Herb and Dorothy all weekend. I finally saw the Megumi Sasaki documentary (it was released on DVD on December 15). It isn’t that the documentary itself is all that well done; in fact in many ways the structure of the film is a bit pedestrian and predictable. But Herb and Dorothy! Now that is a story that will rise to the top no matter what form the telling takes. It is the stuff of legends, the kind that are told over and over again. And maybe those retellings will inspire a spawning of more Herb and Dorothys in the future, an outcome that would be yet another extraordinary legacy from the lives lived by these two unpretentious people.

Why is this story so singular?

The answer is layered, to be sure. But for me the crux of the Herb and Dorothy phenomenon is two fold: 1) Herb’s amazing set of eyes*, and 2) the power—and I chose that word with care—of operating outside the ego-driven needs of prestige, money, status, acceptance. Something huge shifts when someone makes the decision to operate from a place of pure passion and authentic response. And the something that gets unleashed is irresistible and extraordinary.

Herb is a man of few words. He is also a man with no pretension. He spent years keyholing mail at the post office, work that required very little intellectual capital. But when Herb looks at art, his gaze is laser-like. The intensity with which he devours everything in his line of sight is astounding, and that intensity is coupled with an intelligence that is undeniable. In the film artist James Siena describes how Herb would come to his studio and find his most seminal pieces in a stack of drawings, the same ones that other collectors and curators had not seen as significant.

What’s more, Herb’s intelligence was not confined to just one style of art. The scope of the Vogel collection makes it very clear he was able to span and master a number of styles and genres. Watching the footage of him in the documentary made me realize how easy it is to collapse into our comfort zones and familiar categories, even (and at times, especially) those of us who are artists. Watching him in the film has inspired me to be more open and less quick to judge work that may exist outside my aesthetic meme.

From an article by Julia Klein:

Filmmaker Sasaki says she first met the Vogels in 2004 at a New York reception for the husband-and-wife artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The collectors made an immediate impression. “They were so beautiful,” Sasaki says. “They were very small, but their presence is amazing, their energy.”

Sasaki’s documentary, which follows the Vogels into artists’ studios and includes reverent commentary by a number of their artist friends, became “a story of their love affair—with art and artists and each other.”

Six months into the project, Sasaki says she felt blocked by her inability to coax more art analysis from the Vogels. She says the artist Lucio Pozzi broke the logjam by telling her, in effect: “That’s why Herb and Dorothy are so unique and special. They just look and look and look. They don’t care how you talk about art. They are seeing something.”

The second aspect of the story that is so memorable is that Herb and Dorothy never sold out, quite literally as well as figuratively. They never parted with any of the work from a collection that has, over time, become extremely valuable. Instead they kept the pieces together and have set up a program to lend out work to museums willing to show them in groupings of 50 (Vogel 50×50). While age has made them increasingly less mobile, the Vogels continue to reside in the same small Queens apartment filled to the brim with art they love.

They also never sold out in the sense that they did not lose the wonder and passion of their early years of collecting. As notoriety and media coverage have made them into reluctant celebrities, they remain charmingly unpretentious and unfazed. When it is revealed that Herb was getting weekly phone calls from several internationally known artists who had, over time, become good friends, it is presented as no big deal. Herb and Dorothy (until quite recently) would be out looking at art every night of the week, so of course they could report on what was going on in New York with more reliability than many of the leading art critics.

This is more than a feel good story of two people who loved art and made it the central purpose of their lives. It also has a lot to say about preconceived ideas in our culture, about the distance that exists between contemporary art and just everyday folks. The Vogels are not portrayed in this film as folk heroes because they are actually quite exceptional. But there is an everyman message in their undeniable demonstration that it does not take deep financial resources to find great works of art. Herb and Dorothy started simple, and they learned how to navigate with expertise in a world that too many think is complex, elitist and out of reach. Not so, not so.

* While Herb and Dorothy both participated in decisions about purchasing work, Dorothy openly and easily defers to Herb’s astounding set of eyes. While I don’t want to underestimate her valuable contribution to the collection, it is the singularity of Herb’s gaze that I found so mesmerizing.