Sunday, September 11, 2011

Herb and Dorothy

Last May, I attended BookExpo America in New York, NY, a glorious four-day convention for everyone in the book biz. I was working the event for Godine, the house I interned with this spring, and one of our debut titles was Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel, an illustrated book about Etta and Claribel Cone, who purchased Matisse’s and Picasso’s work before they were discovered by mainstream collectors. One author who dropped by our booth recognized the cover’s illustration of the Cone sisters, which surprised me, seeing as no one I pitched the book to had heard of them. We got to chatting, and I commented that I wished I had the resources to collect art. She enthusiastically replied, “But you can!” She proceeded to tell me about Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about a Manhattan couple who, without any professional training, amassed a selection of art worth millions. “Watch it,” she said. “It’ll change your life.”

Well, I just watched it. Twice. Consider my life changed.

At first glance, Herb and Dorothy Vogel seem like your average elderly couple. In many of the film’s shots, they sit at the kitchen table, Herb watching TV and Dorothy fussing over her cat, Archie. But the backdrop for these scenes is anything but commonplace. The otherwise stark white wall is canvassed in paintings, sketches, and colorful paper constructions. As the camera pans through their one-bedroom apartment, you realize their place doesn’t function as a living space – it’s a sanctuary for thousands of artistic creations. They don’t own living room furniture because their stockpile takes up too much space, hence the filming in the kitchen. The real mind-boggler is that this isn’t even their full collection. They donated 4,782 pieces to the National Gallery of Art in 1992. The pieces you glimpse in the film are just what they’ve acquired since then.

Throughout the documentary, Herb and Dorothy narrate their life story. Dorothy was a librarian and Herb a postal worker who didn’t graduate high school. So how does a middle-class couple come to own one of the most renowned late 20th century art collections? By buying art no one else wanted.

Herb and Dorothy explain that when they started collecting in the 1960s, pop and abstract art were the popular styles, and experts weren’t interested in the fledgling minimalist and conceptual movements, making these productions affordable. They spent Dorothy’s salary on living expenses and Herb’s on art. Dorothy said they only had two rules for purchases: “It had to be affordable, and it had to fit in our apartment.”

The artists interviewed in the film speak not only highly of Herb and Dorothy, but also warmly, as if talking about life-long friends. And for some of them, that’s the case. A few artists said they get a call from Herb once a week just checking in on them, and one referred to them as “friend collectors, not collectors collectors.” Christo and Jean-Claude, an artist team-couple, said they even traded the Vogels art for cat-sitting. It’s inspiring too that they genuinely collect art for art’s sake. Dorothy said, “I never thought the artists we collected in those days would become so famous. It wasn’t a goal for us. We liked the work, and when they got recognition, we shared their joy. We sort of became of part of it.”

But the documentary’s point isn’t that everyone can collect art or even that everyone should learn about art. The message is more universal than that. Dorothy says it best herself: “You don’t have to be rich. You can enrich your life.”

You can watch Herb and Dorothy for yourself here: Herb and Dorothy
And check out Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel here: Miss Etta and Dr. Claribel

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