The bathroom wall of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel’s rent-stabilized apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where they have lived since 1963, was decorated years ago with a pencil drawing by the artist Sol LeWitt. Another piece of his — a black wooden floor structure — sat in the living room, next to works by superstars such as Chuck Close and Donald Judd.
Until a few years ago, when the Vogels donated the bulk of their artworks to the National Gallery of Art, the walls in the bedroom were crowded with pieces by artists such as Joseph Beuys, Robert Mangold and Richard Tuttle. Whatever fit went up; what didn’t, from a collection of more than 4,000 items, went under the bed or spent years crammed into closets.
The Vogels’ apartment was arguably its own conceptual installation: a perfectly ordinary, cramped New York space filled with one of the best private collections of contemporary art in the city, or maybe anywhere.
Herbert, 87, (known as Herby) and Dorothy, 74, originally aspired to be artists themselves. As newlyweds they rented a studio, took art classes and started buying art from friends and otherss whose studios they visited.
“We started to take our work down from the walls and started to put other artists’ works up,” Dorothy tells filmmaker Megumi Sasaki in the documentary “Herb and Dorothy,” which was released Dec. 15 on DVD. “We thought they were better than we were, so we gave it up.”
The Vogels began collecting at a particularly auspicious time — when New York became the capital of the art world. It was also a time when the son of a Russian Jewish garment worker from Harlem and the daughter of an Orthodox shopkeeper from Elmira, N.Y., could befriend the people who were shaping culture in New York.
The Vogels met in 1960 and married in 1962. Herbert worked at the post office; Dorothy was a librarian. Their first purchase together, after a Picasso vase he bought Dorothy as an engagement gift, was a metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. Quickly they arrived at a simple arrangement: They would live on Dorothy’s income and buy art with Herby’s salary.
Their budget constrained their purchases; they could afford only the edgiest, most “difficult” pieces from artists who were already getting notice, or work by unknown artists who welcomed the Vogels’ cash-and-carry policy.
“They weren’t collecting for status — they were collecting because of their commitment to the artists and their ideas,” said Norman Kleeblatt, chief curator at the Jewish Museum. “So the Vogels were able to get in on the ground level.”
Over time, the Vogels achieved every middle-class collector’s fantasy: art, assembled on the cheap, by artists who subsequently became very, very famous. And unlike other Jewish collectors who came up in the 1960s, some of whom famously sold their pieces for quick profits, the Vogels held on to everything they bought and only agreed to part with the collection when the National Gallery of Art in Washington promised to make a home for it.
More than 1,000 of their pieces are now held in Washington, while another 2,500 have been distributed to museums in each of the 50 states to allow as much of their work as possible to be displayed.
“The idea that they are ordinary people is so important,” said Ruth Fine, the National Gallery curator who handles the Vogel collection. “They made good choices before these artists were well-known, and they took on the aura of being prescient.”
Reprinted from Tabletmag.com, a new read on Jewish life.
“Herb and Dorothy” on DVD (New Video Group, $29.95)