Film Review: Philip Kennicott on 'Herb and Dorothy'

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel at the University of Michigan in 1978, in a scene from Megumi Sasaki's film about the much-chronicled collectors of modern art.
Herbert and Dorothy Vogel at the University of Michigan in 1978, in a scene from Megumi Sasaki's film about the much-chronicled collectors of modern art. (By Cecil Lockard -- Arthouse Films)
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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 2009

The story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel is too good to be true, which is why it has become an art world cliche and an over-told story.

If you follow middlebrow coverage of high art on programs such as "60 Minutes" or in newspapers and magazines, you've already heard of the Vogels: the charming, workaday New York couple who started buying contemporary art in the 1960s and ended up amassing a priceless, world-class collection. Herb worked at the post office; Dorothy was a librarian. But now they're art world superstars.

Or rather, they've been superstars for decades, which means a documentary devoted to them needs to do more than just retell their story. But Megumi Sasaki's "Herb and Dorothy" begins and ends where all the other stories have begun and ended. Herb and Dorothy are adorable, artists love them, and even academics admire the fine nose for art that helped them amass such an important collection. But Sasaki has nothing more to add, so at 89 minutes, this is a long sit just to absorb the obvious moral of the story and tagline of the film: "You don't have to be a Rockefeller to collect art."

You can't hate the film, any more than you can hate Herb and Dorothy. But this is lazy work. Sasaki almost goes someplace interesting when the film raises questions about whether the Vogels were exploiting artists (by buying art as cheaply as possible) or unfairly gaming the system (by buying directly from artists whose official dealers were entitled, for their services, to be the middlemen). But these issues are raised only to be dropped.

The filmmaker also confronted, but didn't solve, a fundamental problem: The Vogels are inarticulate about art. Told that "you don't have to be a Rockefeller to collect art," the viewer is naturally curious to know how the Vogels did it. What skills did they have? What strategies did they employ? But the Vogels, it seems, were intuitive collectors and don't have one interesting word to say on why this or that piece appealed to them.

As Richard Tuttle, one of the artists the Vogels collected, explains, "Something goes from the eye to the soul, without going through the brain." This isn't meant condescendingly, but there does seem an unspoken and perhaps even unconscious condescension operating among the artists whom the Vogels favored. Herb Vogel, now quite elderly and frailer than in earlier media outings, is compared to a dog sniffing for truffles. They are also called the "mascots" of the art world. Artist affection for them is no doubt genuine, but affection isn't always pure, especially when there's money and power involved.

And have no doubt about it, the Vogels have long been a part of the power system. We learn that aspiring artists send them work unsolicited (Dorothy returns it) and that artists cut them special deals because they want their work in the Vogel Collection. Near the end of the film, we see them visiting the National Gallery, to which they've donated their collection. And there, graven on the wall with the names of other wealthy donors, is proof that the Vogels have arrived. About 30 years ago.

None of this diminishes their remarkable accomplishment. But a filmmaker should at least raise these issues, poke a little, track down a few more voices -- such as John Weber, an art dealer, who mentions the Vogels' habit of undercutting the galleries. But Sasaki, like just about everyone before her who has written or filmed the Vogels, is too charmed by them to raise deeper issues. So, we have two sweet old people who can't say anything particularly interesting about art. How do you flesh out the film?

With a meaningless visit to Herb's boyhood home at Madison and 105th Street. And a journey upstate to the modest house where Dorothy grew up. And a scene in the post office, where hardly anyone remembers Herb anymore. This is filler, a waste of time and a disservice to audiences for whom a documentary is an investment of high-grade attention span, which deserves a higher yield.

More interesting than the Vogels themselves is the incessant need to retell the Vogels' story, which has become a useful fable. The Vogels help allay deep cultural fears within the art world -- fears that art is elitist, or some kind of confidence game, or not a serious endeavor (a fear that has dogged art since at least the time of Plato). But the Vogels dispel such gloomy thoughts. They are a simple couple who love art, who pay for it on a modest income, who unerringly find genius and value in their intuitive choices.

And while they amassed a fortune in art, they aren't greedy, which makes them the perfect art lovers for a society that both despises and requires the monetization of all cultural values. They also give art street cred and the benediction of the common man. No wonder they have become art world "mascots" -- flesh-and-blood plush toys who represent the team.

None of this is very charitable to the Vogels. But this isn't about the Vogels. It's about a film about the Vogels, a film that should have started where others left off, that should have gone further and deeper, if it was to have any claim on our attention. As it is, "Herb and Dorothy" is more a part of the Vogels phenomenon than it is a serious analysis or reconsideration of an already familiar story.

Herb and Dorothy (89 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated and contains nothing objectionable.

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