Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Herb and Dorothy Collect

Herb and Dorothy - Over forty years ago, Herb Vogel, a postal worker, honeymooned with his new bride Dorothy, a librarian, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Last year they were back, inspecting part of their own collection of minimalist and conceptual art, valued in the millions of dollars, with their names etched in stone at the top of the Gallery's wall of donors. The first feature-length film from director Megumi Sasaki, this documentary captures an extraordinary story. The couple is totally dedicated to art. They have no children. They lived in a one bedroom apartment so stuffed with art that just seeing it on screen induces an irresistible urge to shout the words "get out, fire trap" repeatedly. As their sister notes from her comfortable suburban home, Herb and Dorothy could sell one or two pieces and "live like us". Instead they donate all, overwhelming the National Gallery with over 5,000 pieces, some 2,500 of which will now be parceled out to one selected museum in each state (a fifty-fifty program - fifty pieces to each of the select museums in the fifty states). Their apartment purged, Herb and Dorothy have started collecting anew.
Herb has a strong, visual personality. He captures the film as the camera captures him. Herb is a self taught amateur artist who liked to hang out at the Cedar Tavern in the early 1960's with some of the young stars of the art world. Herb speaks rarely and briefly, but he is a man obsessed in a very visible way. When Herb spots a piece he covets he hunches suddenly forward with a rapt gaze - a hungry toad ready to capture a very tasty fly with a swift flick of the tongue. Herb clearly had an eye for what he wanted, an eye aided by his own training and his constant contact with the New York modern art scene.

Dorothy speaks freely, adding detail on the couple's history. She also talks about why the couple collects art and how they select specific artists and pieces, but on these subjects, one picture of the rapacious Herb says more than a thousand words from Dorothy.

The film marvels at the couples ability to build their collection on a modest income without ever selling a single piece, but it captures only part of how they did it. They started by collecting minimalists because that's what they could afford, the school was new and unpopular when the Vogels began to collect. They dealt directly with the artists, in fact the film includes one dealer complaining that he was cut out, despite his exclusive contract with the artist. The Vogels maintained long-term relationships with the artists, communicating regularly and buying multiple pieces. Negotiations are strictly off camera, but As Good As News is guessing Herb cut some truly extraordinary deals, especially after the Vogels had established their reputation as collectors. For an artist, a sale to the Vogels was validation and free advertising, all with the promise that no one would know the terms of a special deal and no work would ever be resold.

The story is intriguing, the film worth seeing, with one caveat. Ms Sasaki is preparing a shorter version for broadcast on PBS. With the right edits, this might actually be a superior product, and even Herb would like that PBS price.

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