The tale of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is as close as you can get to a romantic art story. Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn public library and Herb a postal clerk. Dorothy has a Masters degree in Library Science and both attended art school and were painters. Giving up their artistic careers, they lived in a one bedroom rent controlled apartment and Dorothy’s salary covered their living expenses. Instead of going out to dinner and traveling they prowled the museums and galleries and used Herb’s salary to collect art.
Herb and Dorothy were not into the Old Master world but rather they collected Conceptual and Minimalist art which was not expensive at the time. They rarely bought one work by an artist but would buy several all at once. The professionals, dealers and curators alike, marveled at their “eye” which was at the cutting edge.
They are a prime example to hold up to people who say they cannot afford to collect. As a dealer I had similar clients. I remember one couple that were school teachers who would buy something and pay us over many months but we loved these collectors. They were passionate and we never had to chase them like we did with some of our wealthier clients. The day, or day before, a payment was due we always received it.
Herb & Dorothy amassed an incredibly prescient collection of close to 5 thousand images. They collected so much material that they had nowhere to put it all in their small apartment. Works of art were on the ceiling (which I have seen done to great effect), in the closets and under the bed. In fact the artist, Chuck Close, says that their bed seemed to get higher and higher!
If you would like to know more, I was actually on the board of the company, MUSE Film & Television, that made the documentary called “Herb & Dorothy” by the filmmaker Megumi Sasaki. You will find the trailer here.
In 2008, they approached the National Gallery in Washington D.C. regarding a gift. The museum agreed to keep about half the collection and they decided together to give 50 works to each of the 50 States which resulted in the 50X50 Project. The National Gallery in consultation with the Vogels chose which institutions in each state and which works would go to them. In the case of New Mexico they decided to give works for the most part by artists who came from or worked in the state, as well as artists who have exhibited at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The Vogels visited Santa Fe in the 1990’s and the Museum had borrowed some pictures from them for an exhibition at the time. I am sure that is one of the reasons that our museum was chosen and it did not hurt that this is the state capital! Capitals, however, were not always the choice for donations.
The Museum actually received 63 works of art from the collection but this included close to 25 Minimalist works by Richard Tuttle which the artist decided represented only 3 works since they came from notebooks. Here is a more colorful one from “Loose-Leaf Notebook Drawings, Box 10, Group 4”, 1980-82 watercolor on loose-leaf notebook paper.
I asked Merry Scully, the curator of the current show of the Vogel gift to New Mexico, what her role was, since the selection had been made for the Museum and they were required under the terms of the agreement to show the collection as a solo exhibition in its entirety in a certain time window after the gift was made in 2009. She explained that she obviously had to review the collection and decide what pieces might need paper conservation and then what needed framing. Her most important job was to fit the material into the space that had been allotted and obviously it had to make some sense. To state the obvious you would not want to see the 25 Tuttles interspersed individually among the other works. They were shown together as designated by the artist. In order to understand it better she put all the works from a single notebook together. Also, a curator is de facto an art historian and there are interesting points that can be made through the Vogels’ collection on issues such as the continuum between abstraction, Conceptualism and Minimalism.
I must say that I went to the exhibition rather pessimistic about what my reaction to this material would be and I was pleasantly surprised. The show held my interest and made me wish to learn more. In the end it is up to the viewer to make up his or her own mind. Not all the work was abstract. A Mark Kostabi, an artist I have liked in the past, did an untitled work on paper from 1988 which captured my imagination. It reminded me of one of those cartoons where the New Yorker asks readers to submit humorous captions. How would you title it?
The picture that I liked best in the exhibition is an over life size image by Neil Jenny entitled, “Herb Thinking” 1999, Xerox collage and graphite on mat board.
Herbert died last year but both members of this passionate couple had the chance to see their dream fulfilled and their legacy live on to educate others.