He was a horny little bulldog from the big city who dropped out of high school and went to dances in loud zoot suits. She was a wisp of a thing from Elmira who got a degree in library science and moved with a girlfriend to New York because she liked the theater.
They met in 1960. He worked the graveyard shift in the U.S. Post Office, sorting letters into carousels until dawn. She worked in the Brooklyn Public Library, sorting through card catalogues and arranging books. When they got married and moved into an apartment, with only a few evening hours to share between them, is it a surprise that they started going to gallery openings and collecting art that looked exactly like the objects that they worked with all day (and all night) long?
The twee couple, of course, is Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, subjects of Megumi Sasaki’s new documentary film, Herb & Dorothy. Fortunately, the Vogels are two of the biggest press whores who have ever passed through Manhattan, so there is plenty of archival television footage from the last 30 years to fill up a couple of hours. See Mike Wallace behold a tiny bit of rope by Richard Tuttle and ask, "Is that art?" Watch Herb acerbically point out to Charlie Rose that the Robert Mangold featured on the latter’s TV chat show is hung upside down.
No two people ever got more mileage out of the same shaggy dog story of a couple of government workers buying a lot of incomprehensible artwork which no one else wanted than the Vogels. Here is a drawing of them on the front page of the Wall Street Journal; there they are winsomely photographed in People magazine. Andy Warhol was a renunciate taking a vow of silence in a monastery on top of a mountain compared to the Vogels.
Watching this sly little film, one immediately suspects that young Herbie concocted the whole "art in the apartment" scheme to seduce the winsome Dorothy, you know, "come upstairs and see my etchings!" She didn’t resist and together they concocted a collecting methodology that, while effective, didn’t always please their clients. Their pal Pat Steir remarks in the movie, for example, that the Vogels "looked at everything and took a very long time to pay." The late dealer John Weber angrily attacks them for bypassing his gallery and buying art from his artists directly from their studios.
Rather condescendingly, Lucio Pozzi compares Herbie to a "truffle dog" and, marshaling a narrative condescension that he has made uniquely his own in film after film, Chuck Close tells the tale of the Vogels buying something off his floor. Give the wee ones credit, however, as Herbie calls Richard Tuttle’s bluff on Tuttle’s spontaneity trope by forcing the Tuttster to rip pages out of his sketchbook, toss them on the bed and rearrange them according to Herbie’s exacting specifications.
Longtime pals of the couple will seek out their own remembered peculiarities. Dorothy’s obsession with television quiz shows which led her to try out for Jeopardy at open calls in Madison Square Garden goes unmentioned, although she does play Suduko in the movie. The iron box of the couple’s existential logic, simultaneously irritating and endearing, remains steadfast throughout the film. Why did they donate their collection to the National Gallery of Art? Dorothy answers, "Because they have a strict no de-accession policy, because admission is free and because we are lifelong government employees, Herbert for the U.S. government and myself for the state, so we wanted to give something back."
And what a gift! The lists of multiple works by multiple artists ticked off in the movie will have you looking for your artist friends and neighbors, both famous and forgotten. Still, my favorite segment involves a decidedly unVogelish painter, the realist Will Barnet, who shows off a charcoal sketch he did of the couple in 1971. Herbie is bent over, his eager nose a few centimeters from a desired canvas, while Dorothy studiously stands erect, right behind her husband, in a fugue of concentration. Those with dirty minds might assume that, below the picture plane, she is entering him from behind. Now, wouldn’t Andy just love that?
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).