The Independent has recently published the story of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, an ordinary couple with an extraordinary art collection. Mr Vogel, who passed away on Sunday aged 89, worked nights sorting post at New York’s post offices and Mrs Vogel was a reference librarian in Brooklyn. They began collecting art in the early 1960s after visiting the National Gallery in Washington on their honeymoon.
Unlike many art collectors Mr and Mrs Vogel, known to many in the art world as ‘Herb and Dorothy’, weren’t wealthy and acquired their entire collection by means of their salaries and pensions. They bargained directly with the artists, sometimes paying in instalments. Once, they received a collage from Christo and Jeanne-Claude in exchange for cat-sitting.
Herb and Dorothy mostly collected conceptual art and minimalism. They had simple criteria; the art had to be inexpensive and small enough to carry on the subway or in a taxi. It also had to fit into their one-bedroom flat. The acquisitions soon grew into an impressive salient collection featuring numerous respected artists, such as Chuck Close, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Nam June Paik, Julian Schnabel, Robert Smithson, Lynda Benglis, John Baldessari and Jeff Koons.
Highlights of their collection included Robert Mangold’s ‘X Series (Medium Scale)’ (1968), Donald Judd’s ‘Galvanised Iron Box’ (1968) and Carl Andre’s sculpture ‘Nine Steel Rectangles’ (1977). Earl Powell III, director of the National Gallery explains how, “they did not collect work by marquee artists at the time, but many of them later became well known.”
Over almost 50 years they compiled more than 5,000 works, including paintings, drawings, sculpture and works that defied classification. Incredibly, despite not enjoying the wealth of most serious collectors, the couple didn’t sell a single piece until 1991 when, after years of negotiation, the National Gallery acquired much of their collection. Estimates of the value of their collection range well into the millions. ”We could have easily become millionaires,” Mr Vogel told the Associated Press in 1992, adding: “But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”
Mr Vogel couldn’t elucidate why he had dedicated so much to his art collection, or even why he had chosen particular pieces “I just like art,” he told the Washington Post in 1992. “I don’t know why I like art. I don’t know why I like nature. I don’t know why I like animals. I don’t know why I even like myself.”
Many artists became friends with the couple and would sometimes be invited to their apartment for a TV dinner. We wish we could have had dinner in their one-bed treasure trove. Herb and Dorothy are an inspiration and a refreshing reminder that anyone can have an impact on the art world.
Gary Webber packing art for transfer from the Vogels’ apartment to Washington, 1992; the collectors look on, with Jack Cowart and associate in background. Photograph by John Dominis
Dorothy Vogel and Herbert with cats in front of fish and turtle tanks. Photograph by John Dominis
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel at The Clocktower with a drawing by Philip Pearlstein behind them, 1975. Photograph by Nathaniel Tileston. © Nathaniel Tileston, 2008
‘Noiseless Blackboard Eraser’ Joseph Beuys, Print: felt blackboard eraser (two), each with printed and stamped paper label, with marker, Date: 1974
‘Aqua Not #29’ Lynda Benglis, Painting: cast pigmented paper and paint, 53 x 50 x 5 inches, Date: 1980
‘Untitled’ Carl Andre, Drawing: ink (rubber stamp) on paper, 8 1/2 x 8 9/16 in.
All images courtesy of vogel5050.org