Tuesday, November 10, 2009

An Unlikely Obsession

When the long awaited documentary Herb and Dorothy by Megumi Sasaki was playing earlier this year I was determined to go see it. The trailer fascinated me beyond words and I knew it was my kind of film. It played locally at the Roxie in San Francisco, but as it turned out I missed it during its two week run. Imagine my surprise when Tivo had automatically recorded it, on Public Television of all places (a show called Independent Lens). Yes I think Tivo finally understands who I am! I watched it last weekend and it certainly exceeded my expectations.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel looking at an inscription of their names engraved on a wall panel at the entrance to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

The documentary is about the now legendary art collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel. Herb and Dorothy are a seemingly unremarkable husband and wife living in Manhattan who managed to accumulate over two thousand significant pieces of contemporary art since the 1960s (since the 1990’s the collection has ultimately grown to over four thousand pieces) solely on the couple’s humble salaries as civil servants (he a postal worker and she a public librarian). Their initial fascination with art began with wanting to both be artists, “wanabee artists” Dorothy is quoted as saying. When they were first married they took classes in drawing and painting, which mildly satisfied their itch for art. Upon further examination they realized they enjoyed studying other people’s work more than producing their own. Their fascination turned to what can only be called obsession with discovering new artists, viewing work and buying it before it was generally known to the art world. As the film illustrates they filled every spare inch of their modest apartment with art. Paintings, drawings and sculpture, there was nothing that eluded them.

The official poster for the Herb & Dorothy documentary by Megumi Sasaki.

What is most interesting to me is the method they used to collect the art. These were not professionally trained people, but spurred on primarily by Herb’s knowledge of art became interested in the artist’s process and ultimately bought pieces that spoke to that process. The couple became close with some of the biggest names in the New York art world including Chuck Close, Sol Lewitt and Richard Tuttle. This gave the couple more insight into the artist’s process and informed their collection even further.

Herb Vogel examining a sculpture that he and his wife Dorothy donated to the National Gallery.

Perplexed by what would ultimately happen to the collection, Herb and Dorothy donated it in it’s entirety to the National Gallery in 1991. It is at this point in the film where you really grasp how vast their collection had become. This certainly did not signal them stopping to collect art, on the contrary it accelerated it.

Herb and Dorothy standing at "The Gates" by Christo and Jeanne-Claude in New York City.

Although the type of art they collected (minimalist and conceptual) isn’t for everyone, if you consider yourself a fan of contemporary art this documentary is for you. It is still playing art houses in selected cities in the U.S. through the beginning of next year, but according to imdb.com the film is scheduled to be released on DVD next month. I will warn you, that this documentary may make you want to go out and buy some art!

David Hansen

1 comment:

DennyHollandStudio said...

David~ I'm glad there's a doc on this amazing couple, they've been popping up in the media over the years- their story and passion for art is inspiring.

One more for the Netflix list.