'Herb and Dorothy': You Can't Spell Heart Without Art

By Rachel Beckman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2008

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel like the most unlikable art. They own a few inches of frayed rope with a nail through it. A curved lead pipe. A black cardboard square with the definition of the word "nothing" printed on it in white.

The works, by Richard Tuttle, Carl Andre and Joseph Kosuth, respectively, are part of the more than 4,000 works that Dorothy, a 73-year-old retired librarian, and her husband Herb, an 85-year-old retired postal clerk, have collected. They started buying minimal and conceptual art in New York in the early 1960s, living on Dorothy's salary and spending Herb's on art.

A documentary about their love affair with art, "Herb and Dorothy," screens tomorrow and Saturday at the Silverdocs film festival.

Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki met the Vogels in September 2004 at an event honoring the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The idea of a modest-income couple with thousands of artworks stashed in their one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment intrigued her.

But about six months into filming "Herb and Dorothy," her first documentary, she hit a wall with her subjects.

"They didn't articulate why they like this particular artwork, why did they collect a certain artist," Sasaki says. "The only thing they said was, 'It's beautiful. I like it.' How can I make a film about art collectors who don't talk about art?"

Sasaki had resigned herself to making a 20-minute short film until an interview with Italian artist Lucio Pozzi convinced her that part of the beauty of the Vogels is that they aren't so academic about what they like. They act on intuition.

As Tuttle puts it in the film: "Something goes from the eye to the soul, without going through the brain."

From then on, Sasaki instructed her camera operators to get close-ups of Herbert Vogel's eyes whenever he looked at art. His eyes intensify and light up when he likes something. This happens in a scene filmed in James Siena's studio. Siena, a Washington native, shows the Vogels his new paintings.

"They're very enthusiastic," Siena says. "It's pretty obvious in some way. Sometimes they say things like, 'James, I think this is a very important drawing. Very, very important and I'd like to add it to the collection.' "

Siena says the Vogels have the eyes of artists or curators, rather than collectors. They don't chase trophy pieces, partly because they can't afford them. They buy small works that will fit in a taxi and then in their apartment.

They stay loyal to the artists they adore and collect their work aggressively for decades. Most notably, they're not interested in turning a profit. Despite their priceless collection, they live simply; Herbert wears the same green sports jacket in footage from the '70s and 2007.

Getting artists like Siena to agree to on-camera interviews was easy, Sasaki says, because "when we say 'Herb and Dorothy,' it brings a smile." (The film mentions that not everyone in the New York art world embraced the tiny couple with an open heart. Some gallery owners were peeved when the Vogels made "studio sales," or bought directly from artists rather than through dealers, who would get a cut of the money.)

The National Gallery of Art has about 1,000 works from the Vogel collection, which it acquired for a small sum. In April, the gallery announced a national gift program called "Fifty Works for Fifty States." It will distribute 2,500 more works from their collection throughout the nation, with 50 pieces going to a selected art institution in each of the 50 states.

The Vogels visited the National Gallery on their 1962 honeymoon. It's "where I got my first art lesson," Dorothy says. They like that the museum doesn't sell its art and that anyone can see it free.

Sasaki considers "Herb and Dorothy" a love story above all else. Now that Herb has a hard time walking long distances, both of them have stopped going to galleries and museums. "It's something we share and do together," Dorothy says. "Since he can't get around, I don't go myself."

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, famous for their large-scale environmental installations such as 2004's "The Gates" in New York's Central Park, have been friends with the Vogels for almost 40 years. The Vogels collected their first Christo/Jeanne-Claude work -- a collage of the 1971 Colorado project "Valley Curtain" -- in exchange for taking care of their tabby cat Gladys. The Vogels are animal lovers and own 19 turtles, lots of fish and one fluffy cat named Archie.

"[The scenes of] Dorothy and Herbie in the home with their cat, there's a lot of humanity there," Christo says. "It's another dimension of the film. This part of the film is very inspiring."

The 5 p.m. screening of Herb and Dorothy tomorrow is sold out; tickets are available for the 4:30 p.m. show on Saturday. $10. AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. For tickets, visit http://www.silverdocs.com; call 877-362-7849 for information.

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