Herb & Dorothy Dir. Megumi Sasaki

[Arthouse Films; 2009]

The art world has given us countless marvels to objectify and quantify. Through rapidly evolving movements and periods and a vast catalogue of masterpieces, it has, to varying extents, birthed a range of fanatical artists. We gaze upon their works with a mix of befuddlement, amazement, and anguish. As fans, critics, and laymen, we struggle to determine the meaning of an object; a canvas; a sculpture and communicate it to others. Like baseball cards, works are priced according to the name they bear and their rarity.

The folks who are really supposed to know what is and isn't worth the fuss (and the pricetag) —a tiny group of top art collectors—have allowed very few into their circle of privilege. So it seems odd that Herb Vogel (a New York City postal worker) and his wife Dorothy (a librarian) managed to become a part of this select cadre. What they have accomplished without the wealth and status of world-renowned collectors is a veritable work of art in itself—one the artists they’ve befriended and supported over nearly 50 years of art-buying welcome.

Herb & Dorothy, as you might imagine, tells the story of how a couple with a love for art cultivated one of the greatest collections of Minimalist and Conceptual art on little more than a postal worker’s paycheck. Megumi Sasaki wastes no time piecing together the legacy forged by this dynamic, yet subdued, duo. Both worked by day while taking art classes in the evening before deciding their art could never be more than hobby for either. They choose, instead, to focus on buying works they found aesthetically pleasing. As Pop Art took over the scene in the early '60s, Herb and Dorothy were drawn to Minimalist and Conceptual art, whose creators would remain unappreciated until decades later. They quickly bought pieces from Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, and Robert and Sylvia Mangold. Their rules were simple: The piece had to be cheap, and it had to fit into the pair’s tiny one-bedroom apartment. Over the years, they transformed their quarters into a makeshift gallery and storage unit for some of the most seminal pieces of the era. And their patronage didn’t go unnoticed by the artists they soon befriended.

These friendships, between artist and collector, are at the heart of Herb & Dorothy. As Sasaki unravels the tale of the unlikely art-world duo, the layers peel away to reveal that the Vogels weren’t just collecting works of art but creating lasting relationships with the artists they supported. One of best stories comes from world-famous artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who have been friends with Herb and Dorothy for nearly 40 years. Although they had heard of the Vogels, Christo and Jeanne-Claude had never met them until Herb placed a call inviting the artists to come over to look at and possibly purchase a piece. Unfortunately, when the couples met, Herb and Dorothy were saddened to find they were too late to get in on the Christo and Jeanne-Claude bandwagon. But the artists devised a way to deliver a work of art to the Vogels, who never accepted art for free: If Herb and Dorthy would watch Christo and Jeanne-Claude's cats for a while, they would be rewarded with a collage of the "Valley Curtain," which was to be erected in Colorado that summer. As the deal was made, the relationship between the couple evolved from business deal to full-fledged friendship.

Such stories flow fast and free throughout Herb & Dorothy, balancing the tale of the Vogels’ accumulation with their love of people. They are not -- and never were -- scenesters or speculators. When The National Gallery of Art offered to preserve the works they gathered, the couple gladly agreed to donate much of the 2,000-piece collection to the Washington D.C. museum, further endearing themselves to art-world posterity.

Herb and Dorothy sacrificed so much to obtain the pieces they coveted: space, money, and time. But the couple gained a warehouse full of masterpieces and a slew of lifelong friendships (not to mention the admiration of the most snobbish and hard-to-please in the art community) in the bargain. Megumi Sasaki’s documentary on the pair also does a great service for the art world: It gives a new generation of outsiders the opportunity to realize that it doesn't always take money, connections or breeding to do what you love.

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