Thursday, September 10, 2009

Film review: 'Herb & Dorothy' chronicles the art of acquisition

Herb and Dorothy Vogel, art collectors extraordinaire.


By Hap Erstein

Unassuming and wildly unlikely, Herbie and Dorothy Vogel would not seem out of place in a South Florida condo, whiling away their retirement years with a hot game of gin rummy or mah-jongg. Instead, as the affectionate documentary Herb & Dorothy recounts, they are the toast of the New York art scene as nurturing, instinctive patrons who amassed a major collection worth millions of dollars.

The fact that they did this on two civil service salaries makes their story all the more amazing. He was a postal worker who never finished high school and she was a librarian. Throughout their lives, they lived on her income and used his to buy art, often supporting significant, but unrecognized, artists when no one else would, paying for the work in installments when necessary.

Director Megumi Sasaki, a former journalist, takes us on a tour of the Vogels’ world, into their tiny, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, filled with pet fish, turtles and cat, stuffed with artwork, which adorns the walls and ceiling, but is mainly stacked in piles or shoved under their bed. When they eventually donate their collection to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., it amounts to nearly 5,000 pieces of art that requires five massive moving vans to transport to its new home.

Much of the film, which opens Friday and plays for the week at Lake Worth’s Emerging Cinemas, focuses on the artists that the Vogels discover and champion. They concentrated on Minimalism and conceptual art, which was beginning to emerge in the ’60s. It is not that they necessarily understood the art -- the Vogels readily concede that they did not -- but it was what they could afford. Still, many of the artists, from Chuck Close to James Siena to Christo, talk of what good, knowing taste the Vogels have.

For their part, they explain that they only had three rules of acquisition. They had to afford the art, it had to be portable enough to be brought home in a taxi cab or a subway car and it had to fit in their apartment. Some of the work is highly minimal, like the piece of rope with frayed ends that Mike Wallace is particularly skeptical of during his 60 Minutes interview with the Vogels. (Yes, they became media darlings, too, for their story is so deliciously irresistible.)

They began collecting just as the art market was beginning to explode, so the collection soon spiraled in value. But the Vogels were adamant that they were not doing this for money and they never sold anything they had bought. They felt that they truly were custodians of the art, so they eventually went in search of the right institution to donate it to, with the same care that they gathered it in the first place.

Herb & Dorothy is foremost a great story, but Sasaki gets exceptional cooperation and access from the Vogels, following them as they go on buying visits to their favorite artists and to chic art gallery openings, where they seem all the more out of place.

Originally, both Herb and Dorothy yearned to be artists themselves, but when they accepted the fact that they were insufficiently talented, they threw themselves into collecting with a similar passion. The way they have make art the center of their lives is both amusing and inspiring, well summed up in this entertaining hour and a half.

HERB & DOROTHY. Studio: Fine Line Media; Director: Megumi Sasaki; Rated: Not rated; Screens: 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursday, Black Box Theatre at the Lake Worth Playhouse. Call 586-6410.

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