Perfect Vision

With modest means—but incredible eyes—Herbert and Dorothy Vogel built a major contemporary collection.

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Perfect Vision
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, with their cat, Archie, in their New York apartment. To see the documentary's trailer, click HERE.

Perfect Vision

With modest means—but incredible eyes—Herbert and Dorothy Vogel built a major contemporary collection.

New York is the setting for countless urban legends, from the yarn about alligators inhabiting the sewers to the commonly held misconception that tossing a penny off the top of the Empire State Building can kill a passerby below. But alongside those oft-repeated myths exists another set of New York tales that—though they sound equally unlikely—just happen to be true. Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are the subjects of one such story.

Herbert, 86, and Dorothy, 73, are a retired postal worker and a retired librarian, respectively. Both come from modest backgrounds; they’ve lived in the same small rent-controlled apartment since 1963. And over the course of 45 years, they’ve managed to amass one of the largest collections of contemporary art in the world: some 4,500 pieces, mostly by Minimalist and conceptualist art stars like Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd and Robert Mangold. Perhaps most confounding—in this age of art investment funds and eight-figure auction prices—is that the Vogels have never sold a single work. Despite the fact that cashing in on just a modest portion of their holdings could turn these coupon-clipping senior citizens into multimillionaires, they’ve never even considered it. “We just didn’t do that,” says Dorothy, a petite, cheerful woman in a gray T-shirt and dangling rainbow earrings. “That’s not why we bought art.”

Why they did buy—and just how they were able to buy so much—are questions that the Vogels are attempting to answer on a rainy Friday afternoon in their Manhattan apartment. Collectors’ abodes are often referred to as “art filled,” but in the Vogels’ case, that description is literally true; the place looks more like an off-site Museum of Modern Art storage facility than a typical home. “We started out with regular furniture, and then we started having exhibitions,” explains Dorothy of their eccentric domestic situation. “Drawings went out unframed—we’d left them unframed so we’d have space for them—and when they came back, they were framed. Instead of taking them out of frames, we kept the crates that they came back in, and then one crate went on top of another crate, and pretty soon we had to get rid of the furniture!” Other than a bed and a kitchenette, the tiny dining nook is the only remaining habitable space. On the walls, dozens of Richard Tuttles share space with a grouping of Pat Steir paintings, while Steve Keister sculptures descend from the ceiling. The Vogels—who are the subjects of a new documentary, Herb and Dorothy, that’s being screened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in November—don’t get out much anymore (Herb has trouble walking), so it’s here that they spend most of their time, in the company of their cat, Archie, and 10 pet turtles who swim around in several tanks.

In the early days of their marriage—back when they had a sofa—the Vogels’ own creations covered the walls. The couple, who met in 1960 and married a year later, first entered the art world as aspiring artists: Dorothy created graphic, hard-edged paintings; Herb had a more Expressionistic style. Herb had grown up in Upper Manhattan, the son of Eastern European immigrants, and, though he never finished high school, had developed a strong curiosity about art history in his early 20s. He began checking out art books from the library and taking art history classes at New York University while working nights as a mail clerk. When he met Dorothy, then a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library, she had no real interest in the subject. During their courtship, she remembers, “we never discussed it.” On their honeymoon in Washington, D.C., she got what she describes as “my first art lesson”: a Herb-led tour of the National Gallery. “I was a fast learner, and I enjoyed it too,” she says, “so looking at art became something we did together.”

Back in New York, looking at art soon led to making art, and the couple started befriending fellow artists. The Vogels acquired their first piece, a small, crushed metal John Chamberlain sculpture, in 1962, and, Dorothy says, “slowly our own work started to come down off the walls, and the work of other artists started to replace it. We realized that, as painters, we weren’t so great.” Once they began buying, it became “sort of an obsession,” she admits. Evenings were spent at openings and on studio visits, and Saturdays were devoted to checking out galleries and museums. “There was a brief time that there were galleries open on Sundays, so we started going on Sundays too,” remembers Dorothy. “I resented that! It was my one day to catch up with housework!”

Before long they were living on Dorothy’s earnings and devoting Herb’s entire salary to buying art. Still, when it came to their collecting budget, they were a far cry from Peggy Guggenheim. Happily, the Minimalist and conceptual art they were drawn to had yet to catch on with the masses, so they were able to pick up works for a song. Their only criteria for adding a piece to the collection were that they both had to like it and that it had to fit into their apartment. They also turned down a few things for practical reasons, which Dorothy says she now regrets. “There was a Richard Serra that we did not get because I was afraid someone would get killed on it,” she recalls, “or at least lose an arm or a leg!”

As the artists whose work they collected gained fame, they continued to sell to the Vogels for well under market value, often directly from their studios. Cutting out the galleries is usually a no-no, but most dealers make an exception for the Vogels. “When they first bought from me, I called Sol and said, ‘What should I charge them?’” says Steir, who met the couple in LeWitt’s studio in the late Sixties and has been close with them ever since. “And he said, ‘Take off three zeros and cut the price in half.’ And then they paid month by month on the installment plan.”

At least once, the Vogels have bartered for art, pet-sitting Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s cat in exchange for a collage. James Siena, who met the Vogels in 2004, has sold them about 25 pieces and says that on occasion he’s gone so far as to give them art. “Being one of the youngsters [in their collection]—I’m only 50—is very enticing, given the context,” he says. Artists have been willing to cut these highly unusual deals, says Steir, because the Vogels are highly unusual collectors. “They have a passion for the art that artists have,” she says. “They were able to put themselves inside the work.”

At first this intuitive approach to looking at art posed a challenge for Megumi Sasaki, the director and producer of Herb and Dorothy. About six months into making the film, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Silverdocs festival and will be screened at Art Basel Miami Beach in December, she began to realize, she says, that “the Vogels never explain the art in their collection. I’d ask, ‘Why did you buy his artwork?’ And their response was always, ‘Because it’s beautiful! Because we love it!’ You cannot get anything more than that.” But after a conversation with artist Lucio Pozzi, Sasaki saw that her film didn’t need to answer such questions.“He told me, ‘That’s why the Vogels are so unique. Why do you have to explain art? You have to just look at art very hard. You don’t have to process that information through your brain. You can just take it to your heart, straight. And that’s what the Vogels do.’”

The Vogels’ aim was to amass many works by a particular artist over a number of years in an attempt to demonstrate the arc of that artist’s development, to create a series of retrospectives within the confines of their collection. Partially as a result of this strategy, they forged relationships that transcend the typical artist-collector dynamic. Steir, for example, refers to Herb and Dorothy as “members of my family.” Until his death last year, LeWitt spoke to Herb on the telephone every Saturday morning. In the middle of our interview, Will Barnet calls to wish Herb a happy birthday—a week early. “That’s okay,” Herb says with a shrug. “The man is almost a hundred.”

The Vogels are exceedingly likable, utterly at ease with their eccentricities and able to hold forth amusingly on any number of topics, from the hefty price of artist monographs (“Art books now cost as much as artworks did in my day,” quips Herb) to the joys of Tivo. (Dorothy is a regular recorder of The View and loves reality shows. “I even watch Big Brother,” she says with a giggle. “The people are nasty!”) But according to Steir, it wasn’t just the couple’s charm that made artists want to have them around; they were also able to relate to the Vogels as creative beings. “Herbie, in particular, is an artist at collecting,” she says, “and their collection is an artwork, a monumental artwork.”

By the late Eighties, however, that artwork was getting a bit too monumental. “It got to the point that if someone wanted to borrow something for an exhibition, we couldn’t do it because we couldn’t get at it,” remembers Dorothy. “There were just too many things piled on top.”

In 1990 the couple found a solution, agreeing to donate the entire collection to the National Gallery—the site of Dorothy’s first art lesson. It took five full-size moving trucks to ferry their holdings to Washington, D.C., and when the Vogels went to visit, they saw pieces that they hadn’t laid eyes on in years. “In one sense it was a relief when they took it all away,” says Dorothy, “because I’d always wondered what was going to happen to it. And then we had the apartment painted!”

As the current state of that apartment makes clear, however, the rooms weren’t empty for long. In exchange for their donation, the National Gallery provided the Vogels, who never had children, with a small annuity—not enough money to change their lifestyle but a sufficient cushion so that if, say, one of them had a medical problem, they wouldn’t end up in dire straits. But instead of saving for a rainy day, the Vogels went out and bought more art—lots of it. In addition to what’s now in the apartment, there have been several more shipments to the National Gallery over the past decade and a half—more work than the museum could absorb. It was the National Gallery’s curator of special projects in modern art, Ruth Fine, who came up with the idea for the Vogels’ latest philanthropic undertaking, Fifty Works for Fifty States. Announced this past April, the program will distribute 2,500 works from the collection to 50 museums, one in each state. “The goal,” Fine says, “is to have the works of the Vogels’ collection seen by as many people as possible, on as wide a map as possible.”

And although the works will be scattered in the physical sense, Dorothy sees Fifty Works for Fifty States as another means of achieving her overarching wish: keeping the collection intact. “There will be a book and a Web site about the project, bringing it all together,” she says. “If we did not do this, someone would come along after we’re gone and break it up. And then the identity of the collection would be completely lost.”

With these “mini Vogel collections,” as Fine calls them, being sent as far away as Hawaii, Herb and Dorothy—who aren’t up to airplane travel anymore—know that they probably won’t be seeing thousands of their beloved works again. But that doesn’t worry Dorothy much, either. “We don’t have to go anywhere to look at art,” she says, with a glance at the crate-filled living room and covered walls. “We have everything we need right here.”