“No! You do it!” yells Dorothy across a small New York apartment to her husband, Herb. Megumi Sasaki, a Japanese film director, has just asked to take a peek at a priceless artwork from the 1960s that is covered in blankets.
Herb replies, “No, it’s too far from me, you do it!”
The documentary film “Herb & Dorothy” follows a couple living in New York: Herbert (born in 1922) and Dorothy Vogel (1935). The now-retired couple married in the early ’60s, when Dorothy worked at Brooklyn Public Library and Herb worked at the post office. The newlyweds often visited museums and painting classes on their days off.
They soon started collecting work by young artists of the time, much of which is categorized today as minimal or conceptual art. Dorothy’s income would put food on the table and feed the cats while Herb’s income was used for buying artworks according to two criteria: that they were affordable, and that they would fit in their modest apartment.
“Before I heard about the Vogels, my impression of American art collectors was that they were either in it for the money or the social status,” says Sasaki. “To hear about these two collectors who didn’t care about trends or the monetary value of a piece was surprising.”
The very first work that Herb and Dorothy bought together was John Chamberlain’s small sculpture “Untitled” (1962). Tomio Koyama, a prominent gallery owner in Japan who attended a recent special viewing of the film and likened the Vogels’ passion to the niche “salaryman collectors” circle in Japan, estimated that specific work by Chamberlain to be worth about ¥20 million today.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, a duo renowned for extravagant installations such as “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park (1979-2005), say in the film that they still recall the day they first met the Vogels. The artists awaited the couple at their studio, thinking they would finally be able to pay the rent, but when Herb and Dorothy arrived, it was with a gasp of “We came too late!” No sales were made that day, but soon enough, Christo and Jeanne-Claude made the Vogels an offer they could not refuse: The Vogels would get a collage piece in exchange for taking care of the artists’ cat while they were away.
Other artists whose works the Vogels have collected over the years include Richard Tuttle, Jeff Koons, Lawrence Weiner, Sol LeWitt, even Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso — all internationally recognized artists today, and all with works fitting into the Vogels’ apartment — just.
A friend of the Vogels comments in the film that the couple’s bed was getting higher as they shoved more artworks underneath, and that their apartment was filled with pieces in every corner — including the bathroom — while their cats jumped in and out of boxes.
In the film, Dorothy’s sister, Carol, recalls a visit to the apartment, whose walls were covered in minimalist art. On seeing a set of framed white canvases, she made a “polar bear walking in snow” joke. S asaki is a New York-based documentary maker from Japan, and “Herb & Dorothy” is her first feature film. She tells The Japan Times she first heard of the Vogels when she was documenting Christo and Jeanne-Claude for a program on NHK in 2002.
“When I noticed that most of the works were marked ‘Vogel Collection,’ I asked Christo and Jeanne-Claude who these Vogels were,” says Sasaki.
Sasaki became fascinated with this married couple who had built an immense art collection with average means, and when she was invited to an exhibition of the Vogels’ trove in New York in 2004, her eyes met theirs through champagne flutes.
“There was this tiny couple sitting in the middle of the exhibition room,” recalls Sasaki. “They stood out so much among all these tall Americans; the Vogels are maybe shorter than 150 cm. They looked so cute.”
Sasaki asked them whether they would like to be in a documentary; the answer was yes, and shooting started a week later. Sasaki held a handicam and imagined a 30-minute documentary. She admits her interest was in their story rather than the collection itself.
“I took art classes in junior high school, but that’s how far my knowledge in art goes,” she says.
When Sasaki realized how much presence the Vogels held in the art industry, the project became more elaborate. “We had so many arguments,” says Sasaki.
The Vogels would not share any information on the artists in their collection; and when they visited artists’ studios, obviously a very big part of their life, Sasaki was not allowed in — with or without her camera. Another issue for Sasaki was the Vogels’ reluctance to be interviewed. When asked “Why this piece?” the Vogels would reply, “Because it’s beautiful.”
“I started to think I might only get enough material for a 15-minute documentary,” confesses Sasaki.
However, patience and a growing friendship eventually won the couple over, and Sasaki experienced an epiphany. Art is something that cannot be explained with words, and it was the Vogels’ pure passion for art that amazed Sasaki again and again.
Once Sasaki had almost become an honorary Vogel, she started to get more intimate shots. In fact, that itself was analogous to the Vogels’ approach to art: nurturing friendship over the years and following an artist’s growth from cardboard-box studio to Sotheby’s auction house.
Despite many of the pieces in their collection now being worth a fortune, the Vogels have never sold a single work, perhaps because of their personal attachment to the artists.
The film reaches its climax in a re-enactment of the day in 1990 when the couple packed up many of their artworks for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, to be properly preserved by curator Jack Cowart. Cowart recalls in the film the sensation he felt when he first walked into the Vogels’ apartment, saying, “All my alarms went off as an art curator.”
A New York gallery owner featured in the film declares, “collecting is a disease,” while an artist comments, “They were greedy. Thank God they were greedy!”
Perhaps “disease” is a reasonable diagnosis. After Cowart moved about 2,000 pieces from the Vogels’ apartment to Washington for his museum’s permanent collection, the Vogels began to fill their now-empty home with more artworks, hoarding over 4,000 pieces — a volume too large for any individual art institute to preserve. They recently undertook a project titled “50×50,” where they visited art institutes in 50 different American states and donated 50 works to each, which Sasaki filmed as a followup to “Herb & Dorothy.”
When asked what relevance her film holds in Japan, Sasaki tells us, “The economy is bad, job security is gone, but the Vogels are cute and humble to the core, and I thought this is a chance to connect with the Japanese audience about what finding happiness is.”
As the Vogels say in the documentary: “You don’t have to be a Rockefeller to collect art.”
“Herb & Dorothy” is now showing.