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The unstoppable nature of art making…from a recent installation in Chelsea

Adam Davidson‘s piece in the Sunday Times magazine, How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality, explores that rarefied world of art auctions, blue chip galleries, U.H.N.W.I’s (Ultra High Net Worth Individuals) and sky high prices. In a sentence: “The art market, in other words, is a proxy for the fate of the superrich themselves.”

Tracking that zone of activity is about as meaningful to me and the work I do each day as an update on the number of caviar eggs consumed in Monte Carlo. While Davidson’s piece includes some economic insights into this rarefied market—“Art is often valuable precisely because it isn’t a sensible way to make money”—my favorite paragraph came at the very end:

As I talked to art advisers and economists, I kept thinking of my childhood in Westbeth, a subsidized housing complex for artists in Greenwich Village. Our neighbors, painters and sculptors among them, were decidedly not rich. To them, the very idea that art should make someone wealthy was laughable, even offensive. It makes me happy to think that this world of art-as-investment is a minuscule fraction of the art world overall. Most people who create, trade and own art do it for a much simpler reason. They just like it.

And thank god they do.


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.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel, art collectors extraordinaire, at home

The April 2009 issue of Modern Painters magazine has an interview by Christopher Turner with documentarist Megumi Sasaki about her new film, Herb and Dorothy. The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is so outrageous and runs so against the grain of everything I have known about art collecting, I cannot stop thinking about these two individuals and what they achieved.

The whole story reads like a fairy tale.

Here is Sasaki’s description of her film:

Do you have to be a Medici or a Rockefeller to collect art?

Not according to Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. This documentary film tells the extraordinary story of Herb, a postal clerk, and Dorothy, a librarian – an ordinary couple of modest means who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history.

In the early 1960s, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb’s salary to buy art, and living on Dorothy’s paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Within these limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries; most of those they supported and befriended went on to become world-renowned artists. Their circle includes: Sol LeWitt, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Lynda Benglis, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Lucio Pozzi and Lawrence Weiner.

Thirty years on, the Vogels had managed to accumulate over 4,000 pieces, filling every corner of their living space from the bathroom to the kitchen. “Not even a toothpick could be squeezed into the apartment,” recalls Dorothy. Their apartment was near collapse, holding way over its limit – something had to be done.

In 1992, the Vogels made headlines that shocked the art world: their entire collection was moved to the National Gallery of Art, the vast majority of it as an outright gift to the institution. Many of the works they acquired at modest prices appreciated so significantly that their collection became worth several million dollars, yet the Vogels never sold a single piece to breakdown the collection.

Herb and Dorothy still live in the same apartment today- with 19 turtles, lots of fish, one cat -once completely emptied, now refilled again with piles of artworks.

The Vogels’ discerning taste and magnanimity changed the face of contemporary art collecting. In 20 James Stourton, the chairman of Sotheby’s UK, included the Vogels in his acclaimed book, Great Collectors of Our Time: Art Collecting Since 1945. Stourton placed Herb and Dorothy among the top art collectors in the world, alongside Getty, Rockefeller and Mellon.

While there are countless films that feature artists, there are few about art collectors. Herb and 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.

In Turner’s interview, Sasaki shares an insight she came to while making the film that is also very memorable:

Six months into production, I did the first on-camera interview with Herb and Dorothy and asked them, “Why did you like this artists or that art work?” They just replied, “because it’s beautiful” or “because we like them.” I thought, Oh, my god, how can I make a film about art collectors who can’t articulate anything about their collection? Then I met Lucio Pozzi, the first artists we interviewed for the film and told him about the difficulties I was having; his response was, “That why Herb and Dorothy are so unique and special. Why do you have to verbalize and explain visual art? Why can’t you simply say I like it or I don’t like it?” Art is not something you have to explain, but feel. That’s the great lesson I learned from Herb and Dorothy.

I am completely enchanted. God bless you both, Herb and Dorothy. And while I have you, can I ask if there is any way to clone the likes of you?

Viewings of the film at festivals and in theaters are listed here.

Herb and Dorothy at the Gates in Central Park