This is the followup to “Herb & Dorothy” from 2008, in which New York-based documentary filmmaker Megumi Sasaki wowed the world when she introduced Manhattan art-collector couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel. For some reason, it took a full two years for that film to make it to Japanese theaters, and during that time, Sasaki was already hard at work on this sequel.
“Herb & Dorothy 50×50″ picks up where its predecessor left off. The previous documentary had been as much about the now-elderly couple’s story as art collectors (he was a postal clerk, she was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library; together they amassed an astounding collection of American minimalist and conceptual art and then gave away the whole lot to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1992) as it was about their personal lives, though neither Herb nor Dorothy seemed to make a distinction between public and personal: They simply were who they were. The film also featured the Vogels’ rent-controlled, one-bedroom Manhattan apartment crammed floor-to-ceiling with artwork and a menagerie to boot — a museum piece all by itself.
Sasaki’s first work showed the couple so completely absorbed in their lives, their space and their mutual passion that at times it came off like a fictional love story.
This time around, the director focuses on some of the many gallery owners, artists and museum curators who have been touched by the Herb and Dorothy magic, and the result is something that feels more professional and certainly more informative. Sasaki takes Herb and Dorothy on the road: The couple decide to donate one piece each from their collection to one museum from each of the 50 states of America. They actually seem to bloom on the road — and are more adventurous and earthy, shedding their insularity and mystique. Dorothy wheelchairs Herb through galleries and museums, and the sight is somehow more arresting than that of all the 50 artworks put together.
“Herb & Dorothy 50×50″ provides a fitting sense of closure, as Herb died last year in a Manhattan nursing home at the age of 89. Dorothy, 13 years his junior, still lives in New York. In the film they are saluted for their passion for art, expressed only in low-key statements such as, “We like what we like.” Curators across the U.S. marvel at the “incredible eye” the Vogels had for homing in on an undiscovered talent, picking up his/her work and taking it home (most often on the subway).
Their vast and unparalleled collection includes work by Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle and Andy Goldsworthy, among many others. Christo once gave them a collage in exchange for cat-sitting. All this, and the couple never sold a single work of art. Herb’s salary as a clerk peaked in the late 1980s, at $23,000 before taxes. They never owned a car, never took vacations and only sometimes ate out at a local Chinese restaurant.
What Herb and Dorothy teach us here is perhaps the secret to a long and successful marriage: While it’s important for two people to love each other, to share a love for the same thing is equally or even more important.