‘Herb and Dorothy 50x50’ movie review


(Fine Line Media)
October 3, 2013

If the 2008 documentary “Herb and Dorothy” looked at the creation of one of the world’s great art collections, a trove of nearly 5,000 pieces of mainly minimalist and conceptual art put together by a New York postal worker and his librarian wife, “Herb and Dorothy 50x50” is the story of its disassembly.

It’s a compelling, even stirring, tale.

It’s tempting to describe the dispersal of 2,500 pieces from Herbert and Dorothy Vogel’s collection — with 50 works being donated to each of 50 American museums, one from each state — as a wholesale destruction rather than a disassembly. In fact, one of the artists whose work is most well represented in the collection (Richard Tuttle, with more than 300 works once owned by the Vogels) is very vocal in the film about his disapproval of what has come to be known as the 50x50 project. Although he has since changed his mind, Tuttle initially felt that the collection, which is arguably a giant work of art itself, should remain intact.

So did Herb Vogel, as we learn toward the end of Megumi Sasaki’s film, which places a succinct exclamation point at the end of the saga she began telling in her first film.

The story inspires, and not just for the couple’s generosity. Now worth untold millions, the collection is jaw-dropping in scope. But so were the almost obsessive-compulsive buying habits of the Vogels, who housed the entire collection in a one-bedroom apartment, financing it only by Herb’s salary. (Dorothy’s went to pay living expenses.) Many of the works, the majority of which are on paper, were stored in closets or stacked under furniture.

Equally inspirational is the way Sasaki’s film shows us the effect that the Vogels’ gifts are having, not just on the institutions that received them, but on the communities that they serve. It’s one thing for the National Gallery of Art to showcase work that is, in many cases, intellectually challenging, even tough to love. The Washington museum was actually the first recipient, in the early 1990s, of works from the Vogels, some of which were showcased there in a 1994 exhibition. But because the NGA was unable to handle the entire collection, the 50x50 project was devised, in collaboration with former National Gallery curator Ruth Fine.

But Sasaki’s camera also visits several of the smaller institutions that were chosen as beneficiaries of the bequest, sometimes sitting in as docents struggle to give viewers the tools to connect with art that, for a lot of folks, may not even look like art. Some works collected by the Vogels consist of simple snippets of text, printed directly on the wall. One piece, shown in their apartment, is nothing more than an inch or two of string.

Sasaki’s film makes it clear that the 50x50 project was, for many museums, a game-changer, just as it was for the people who might otherwise never have had the opportunity to see work by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Martin Johnson, Nam June Paik, Mark Kostabi and other avant-gardists. The film is packed with insights from some of these artists, as well as interviews with Herb and Dorothy that supplement the information in the 2008 film. Dorothy does most of the talking. Herb, who died in 2012, had grown pretty reticent in his final years.

Herb’s death lends a poignant finality to the film, which ends by showing Dorothy clearing out their apartment and sending the last of their art collection to the National Gallery. Once again, the impulse is to view this disposition as a disintegration.

Yet even in the Vogels’ apartment, much of the work was out of sight. And even if the National Gallery, or some other museum, had been able to take all of it, the bulk of the collection would likely have sat in storage.

The view of the 50x50 project as a destruction, Dorothy says, couldn’t be further from the truth. “I don’t think it broke it up,” she says. “It brought it together.”

★★★

Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains brief obscenity. 86 minutes.
Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, artist Martin Johnson and curator Ruth Fine will host a Q&A after the 7:20 p.m. showing Friday. On Saturday, Sasaki will host a Q&A after the 2:20 p.m. showing and will introduce the 4:20 p.m. show.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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