Review: A pair of unlikely, enigmatic art collectors
August 14, 2009
“Herb and Dorothy” features a scene of newsman Dan Rather looking closely at a tiny piece of rope hanging on the wall of a New York City apartment, and wondering at the mystery of how this object got to be a valued piece of art.Rather could just as easily have gone through the same process with Herb and Dorothy Vogel, the owners of that Richard Tuttle piece. Like the bit of rope, the Vogels are small, are not prone to announce their merits, and invite one to take a closer look to see how they have taken an esteemed place in the art world.Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki gives the Vogels that close-up, extended look in “Herb and Dorothy.” The documentary hardly ever takes its eye off its principal subject. Rather than go into the intricacies of the modernist art that the Vogels collect, Sasaki gives us the histories of New York City native Herb, and of Dorothy, and even takes the couple back to the places where they grew up: the far-uptown Manhattan apartment building where Herb’s immigrant parents raised him; the small, upstate New York town of Elmira that the teenage Dorothy escaped in favor of the big city.But much like the art in the Vogels’ collection – much of it minimalist in the extreme – Herb and Dorothy defy explanation. To appreciate it, you’ve got to accept a large measure of mystery and unknowability. The film takes this into account: Dorothy’s sister-in-law confesses that visits to the Vogels’ Manhattan apartment have been tense; she has stepped on or otherwise disrupted works of art that masquerade as functional objects, like a plastic floor-mat.”Herb and Dorothy” doesn’t need to play up the angle of the Vogels as unlikely collectors of fine art. The Vogels do it every time they speak, or appear on camera. Herb, a tiny, stooped man, doesn’t speak much, and when he does, it is in the gruff voice of a native, working-class New Yorker. Dorothy comes off as sweet, deferential and naive. There isn’t much hiding behind this faade: Herb spent his working life in a New York City post office, Dorothy as a librarian. There isn’t wealth behind them; they live in a small, rent-controlled apartment, they afford themselves few luxuries that can’t be put on their walls. The bulk of their income, from the day they met in 1960, has been devoted to art.What they have, making up for dollars, social status and surface charm, is a passion for contemporary art that verges on the obsessive. Dorothy points out that the two once spent every evening going to a gallery opening, an auction or, what seems to be their favorite activity, visiting artists like Robert Mangold and Christo and Jeanne-Claude in their studios. Her recollection is backed up by the collection itself: endless works of modern art that take up every inch of their apartment.”Herb and Dorothy” is a bit artless itself, especially in the visually glaring recent footage of the Vogels. But the subject itself is worthy. The Vogels come off as creative beings themselves, devoted not necessarily to the making of art, but of collecting it – which, raised to this level, is an art-form itself. And like all artists, they mostly elude explanation. There is much made of the way Herb looks at a piece of art, how he literally approaches the work and concentrates on it.And like most artists, it is more heart and soul than technique behind the magic. In the final sequence of “Herb and Dorothy,” regarding where their collection eventually lands, we get a glimpse into their souls that provides a lot of the answers to what has made them firstname.lastname@example.org
“Herb and Dorothy” shows Sunday, Aug. 16 at Aspen’s Paepcke Auditorium in the SummerFilms series. Director Megumi Sasaki will be present for a Q&A following the screening.