Several years back a brilliant play by Yasmina Reza was making the rounds of theatres all over the world. Its title was Art, and it was about a man who had purchased a wonderful modernist painting, hung it on a wall, and invited two friends over to admire his discovery. What they saw was a framed canvas painted completely white. What the audience saw was a comic dissertation on the nature of art as the friends tried to make the painting's owner aware that the emperor wore no clothes.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel have become celebrated as passionate collectors of modern art. On one of the walls of their cramped Manhattan apartment, filled with books and boxes and cats and fish and turtles and sculptures and mobiles and drawings and paintings, there are two framed canvases painted completely white. As Dorothy's sister-in-law comments in the documentary, Herb and Dorothy, now available on DVD, it looks like a polar bear walking in a snow storm. A comment, she adds, Dorothy didn't much care for, and more than likely Herb didn't either. Because where a sister-in-law and perhaps you and I could see nothing but a white canvas, Herb and Dorothy could see art. And they could see it in the '60s and the '70s, early on in a period when they were among the very few who could.
What Magumi Sasaki's film illustrates is how two people with some knowledge and a great deal of passion who know what they like and are prepared to go after it can still, even in these inflated times, find a way to do great things. On the surface, the Vogels would seem unlikely candidates for celebrity in the sophisticated environment of the art gallery, the museum, and the pricey auction house. Tiny, munchkin-like cherubs now grown old and, at least in Herb's case, somewhat feeble, they would seem out of place at art show openings among the 'beautiful' people. He was a postal worker; she a librarian. They both look like they'd be more at home in front of a television set with a glass of tea or a bowl of chicken soup. But that would be a stereotypical cliché and if there is one thing the Vogels are not, it is cliché.
They began by studying to be artists themselves, but very soon realized that what they were able to create was not quite as good as what some of those around them were doing. Early on they began collecting. Since they were not wealthy people, they understood that they couldn't afford the work of those artists who were in their heyday: the abstract expressionists, the pop artists. Instead they looked to those artists who were just starting out, those artists whose work was not yet attracting attention, those artists who were working in new idioms and were not always understood. Not only did they buy their work, they took an interest in what they were doing. They befriended them.
They looked to the minimalists: artists who worked with simple shapes and forms in limited color. They looked to the conceptual artists, who theorized in almost Platonic fashion that the idea behind the work was the important thing, not the work itself. They looked to those artists who were interested in creating art for specific environments. From the work of these yet undiscovered talents, Herb and Dorothy built a collection in their tiny apartment that ran into thousands of art works, a collection which would eventually prove even too large for the National Gallery of Art, and lead to the Fifty Works For Fifty States project. Under the supervision of the National Gallery, works from the Vogel Collection will be shipped to various museums in each of the fifty states and a website was created.
Not only does Sasaki's prize-winning film celebrate this unassuming couple, it takes a long look at the works of art themselves as Herb, Dorothy, and the artists themselves try to explain why a short piece of rope with frayed edges seemingly tacked to a wall is a significant piece of art. In effect they try to answer the question of how a completely white painting can be a work of art. Somewhere Dorothy Vogel is quoted as saying that a work doesn't have to mean anything. It's art.
Many of the artists the Vogels befriended appear in the film — Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Richard Tuttle, Robert Barry, Pat Steir, and numerous others. All seem eager to acknowledge the importance of the Vogels in encouraging them in the development of their work at a time when they could have used that encouragement, which ranged from providing much needed cash for those struggling for recognition, to cat-sitting for the environmental artist, Christo.
To recognize greatness where no one else yet sees it is no mean accomplishment. It is not an easy thing to do; it is not an easy thing to explain. Herb Vogel says they had certain rules about what they would buy: they had to like it, and it had to fit into their apartment. "Like" is not necessarily something that can be explained analytically. "Like" seems to have more to do with a sensual appreciation, an emotional attachment. It is not necessarily something that can be intellectualized.
Herb and Dorothy is a beguiling documentary that, if it never quite answers the question of what makes great art, certainly answers the question of what makes great collectors. The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is a story of passionately committed people, lovingly and passionately told. I don't know that we really need any more than that.