PFF Review: HERB & DOROTHY

If you were to see Herb and Dorothy Vogel walking down the streets of Manhattan now, you would probably think they were just an ordinary old Jewish couple on their way to the Carnegie Deli for some lean brisket. You would probably be right.

But if you had seen them walking down the streets of lower Manhattan in So-Ho and Tribeca sometime in the early 1970’s (very unhip back then) you would have been very puzzled. Why would this tiny couple (they are both short) be walking around these rough neighborhoods full of punk clubs, drug addicts, scary leather bars, empty lofts and all kinds of disreputable people and why aren’t they scared? The reason is because they were probably on their way to see some emerging artist in his workspace or to attend some offbeat gallery show of minimalist art. Later you might have seen them heading back uptown on the subway or in a taxi with packages of art. You would have thought, well, this is just strange enough to be typical in New York.

Here, you would be wrong.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel are anything but typical. He was a worker for the US Post Office, with only a couple of years of high school for education, but he was a voracious reader of art books and an overall intelligent autodidact. She was a highly educated woman with a graduate degree who made a fine career working for the New York Public Library. But, living frugally on her salary, the Vogels were able to use his salary to buy art. What kind of art? Well, mostly minimalist art from some known, but mostly from unknown artists. What were their criteria for purchase? There was only one, they simply had to like it. That’s it.

So, by going to every art show, gallery opening or loft display they were ever invited to and paying for their purchases in cash whenever possible (I know the usually cash strapped artists appreciated that), over the years Herb and Dorothy Vogel amassed a collection of art unprecedented in its breadth and scope.

Keeping it all in their tiny rent controlled apartment between their cats, turtles and large fish tanks, they managed to get works from everyone from Sol Lewitt to Andy Goldsworthy. They got photo proofs from Chuck Close and small drawings by Richard Tuttle. They got some drawing designs of the Christo and Jean Claude project Valley Curtain for the price of simply watching the artist’s cat while they were away working on a project. Herb and Dorothy seemed to know everyone in the New York art world and everyone knew them.

The film Herb & Dorothy is a documentary from writer-director Megumi Sasaki that I just saw tonight at the Philadelphia Film Festival/Cinefest 2009 and it was a joy. Herb and Dorothy Vogel, along with the director were in attendance at the screening and that made this an even more special night.

It was great hearing Herb and Dorothy talk about the art that they like to collect because it is very difficult art for most other people. Face it, most people only like representational art. They want their mountains to look like mountains and their dogs playing poker to look like dogs playing poker.

But the Vogels seemed to be naturally drawn to works that simply had line, or color, or texture, or shape or they just liked the concept of the work the artist was trying to articulate. What makes this film so wonderful and I ultimately hope broadening for others is their simple explanations for why they liked certain things over others and their advice to follow your instinct in what you like when looking at art.

There is an unsavory reverse snobbery that goes on when it comes to the general public and their appreciation of abstract, minimal or conceptual art. Since the works are frequently not immediately recognizable as definite objects, many in the general public thinks that the whole world of modern art is just one big scam.

Many a time I have watched someone walk into a Modern and Contemporary gallery at a quality museum, take a look at a work by Sol Lewitt or Barnett Newman and then say loudly (so everyone else can hear), “What’s this? It’s just big colored lines on a wall? My six year old could have painted this!” Well, first of all, that’s not true and secondly, the evil spawn from your ignorant loins didn’t paint it.

This is just a form of acting superior to the work and the artist (and by extension all those who like this kind of art) by pretending to be sophisticated enough not to be taken in by simple pictures made from colored lines or abstract shapes. I want to grab these people and smack them until they open their minds a little bit.

But the Vogels put that kind of snobbery to shame by simply being open, friendly and honest about what they like, what they don’t like and why. Furthermore, they state their thoughts in friendly, easily understandable terms that do not require a degree in art to comprehend. I wish I could be more like them.

Maybe the film Herb & Dorothy will be a corrective to this deficiency. I certainly hope so. Herb Vogel says it best when he states that he just likes these works because they are beautiful to him and beauty alone is enjoyable. The art works don’t need to be anything else.

According to the film, they have donated their collection to The National Gallery in Washington so every American can now see these great works of art, which also makes the Vogels the very definition of a mensh.

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