The Gettys and the Rothschilds are famous for their priceless collections of art. But up there with them are the Vogels: Herb, a retired New York mail-sorter, and his wife, Dorothy. Christopher Turner meets the ordinary couple with an extraordinary addiction.
Dorothy and Herb Vogel’s one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan is crammed with an impressive array of clutter. The main room is full of boxes, crates and piles of books and paper that teeter 5ft high and eclipse the picture window, leaving space for only a narrow corridor to the door. Fifteen turtles look out from a series of tanks on one side of this precarious walkway, noisily knocking their heads and shells against the glass. A large pile of laundry and grocery bags tumbles out of a small kitchen. And alongside all this, on almost every visible inch of wall, tea towels or tartan blankets hang over picture frames like a series of strange domestic shrouds. Behind the protective coverings, and stored in the stacked boxes, are pieces of one of America’s most priceless collections of contemporary art.
The diminutive inhabitants of this crowded space have lived here all their married life, and now rarely leave it. Herb Vogel, who is wearing red Nikes and long shorts the day I meet them, has just turned 86 and stands a hunched 4ft 7in; Dorothy is 13 years younger and 2in taller. She is the dynamo of the pair, loquacious and busy, while he sits back, watchful, in serene contemplation. The Vogels have been collecting voraciously since the early 1960s, and their passion has earned them an unlikely place alongside the Rothschilds, Gettys and Rockefellers in a recent book: James Stourton’s Great Collectors of Our Time. For most of his working life, Herb, the son of a tailor, sorted mail at the central post office in Manhattan; Dorothy, the daughter of a stationer, was a librarian in Brooklyn Heights. They had no children, and chose to live frugally on her salary, so that they could spend his on art.
In 1992, after Dorothy retired, the Vogels donated their ever-expanding collection to the National Museum of Art, in Washington, because they had run out of space for it. ‘We’re not ones to throw things out,’ says Dorothy, glancing around, ‘and we couldn’t fit another toothpick in.’ According to Chuck Close, a friend of the couple who is represented in their collection, the Vogels had so much art stuffed under their bed that it had risen off the floor.
The museum had no idea of the extent of the Vogels’ hoardings. It took three months and five 40ft lorries to pack up and remove more than 2,500 pieces from their tiny apartment: priceless work by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, Carl Andre, Richard Long, Julian Schnabel, Jeff Koons, and Richard Tuttle, among others. Only three works remained in situ, because they were site specific or too fragile to move (the National Gallery has since been back to collect one of these, a piece made out of yoghurt).
The art handlers took pride in their project of restoring the Vogels to what anyone else might call normal life: a bare apartment with space for regular furniture. There is a photo of the couple taken after the removal process; they are holding their cats, smiling, posing against a freshly painted white wall. However, this tabula rasa was short lived and the couple soon refilled the apartment. To thank them for their generous bequest, the museum had given them a small annuity, and the Vogels used this, and what was left from their pensions, to buy yet more art, which will also be donated to the National Gallery; they now own more than 4,000 works. They were too addicted to collecting to stop.
Christo, an artist known for appropriating vast unlikely packages, has called the Vogels ‘compulsive collectors, almost like alcoholics’, and the artist Pat Steir has said that they ‘bought work as though they were starving for art’. ‘Sometimes you get carried away,’ Herb admits. ‘You get into the psychological frame of mind.’ The Vogels’ habit is almost a form of art in itself; they live in the spirit of Picasso’s bohemian declaration: ‘I am the King of Ragpickers!’
The Vogels met in 1962, when Herb read an advertisement in the New York Post about a reunion for people who had attended a holiday resort, and he decided to crash the party. Dorothy was there: ‘She looked intelligent,’ he explains, in his slow, gravelly voice, before adding diplomatically, ‘and cute, too’. They married a year later, and on their honeymoon went to Washington, where, fittingly, the first place they visited was the National Gallery. It was here, Dorothy tells me, that Herb offered her a first lesson in art appreciation. ‘I learnt everything from him,’ she says, admiringly.
Herb worked the nightshift at the post office and, after catching four hours’ sleep, spent his days studying art history under Irwin Panofsky at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. He also took painting classes there, and frequented the legendary Cedar Tavern, where he rubbed shoulders with Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock. Dorothy, keen to share Herb’s interests, also began making art, and their respective styles reflected their different personalities: ‘Mine was hard-edged, very hard-edged,’ Dorothy says, ‘and his was more expressionist. I think a lot of people liked mine better.’ They decorated their apartment with their creations.
When they met, Herb already had a small art collection; he had spent his savings on a Picasso lithograph that he says was ‘more expensive than anything I’ve collected since’. Dorothy also had the collector’s bug, but she accumulated postcards, shopping bags and bookmarks. The first artwork they bought together was a small metal sculpture by John Chamberlain that resembled a crushed toy car. Soon there was no space left on the walls for their own amateur efforts, and they decided to give up their painting studio near Union Square and devote themselves to collecting full time. All that remains of their own artistic endeavours is a pile of folded canvases that have been exiled to a trunk on the balcony.
The Vogels didn’t buy art as an investment, they did it for themselves. Everything they owned became a piece of a larger, never-completed jigsaw puzzle. Neither of them felt that they could talk about their passion with their work colleagues, and their collection was something of a private joy. Their families had little sympathy for the type of art they collected. ‘My sister-in-law, when she saw the Joe Baer [a white canvas], said it looked like two polar bears playing in the snow,’ Dorothy says in disbelief, ‘and she thought the Lynda Benglis rubber floor sculpture was a rug!’ The Vogels aren’t very forthcoming when asked to elaborate on why they bought what they did. ‘I either liked it or I didn’t like it,’ Herb says, ‘and if I liked it, I got it.’ Their preference was for work that was austere and uncompromising (‘tough art’, as Herb describes it).
However, their tastes were also moulded by practicality. Pop art, then in vogue, was too expensive: ‘The only thing we could afford was conceptual or minimal,’ Dorothy says, ‘and we had very few competitors. A lot of people who were collecting art at that time weren’t interested.’ Herb says that they had two simple rules: ‘It had to be affordable, and it had to be able to fit into the apartment.’
It seems paradoxical that a couple so at home in all this clutter should be attracted to minimalism and conceptualism, art stripped down to its most fundamental features so as to question the very nature of what is understood as art. In the words of Jack Cowart, the curator at the National Gallery who negotiated the Vogels’ bequest, ‘They went to art that was very difficult for the general public to understand; to artists who had no money, who were on the front edge of the avant-garde. It was all done for love, at whatever price, at whatever cost, even if it displaced them from their own apartment.’
Did the Vogels ever argue about the works they chose. ‘He was better at collecting works by Lynda Benglis, who is more flamboyant,’ Dorothy says. ‘And I seem to have been better at selecting more cerebral works by Sol LeWitt. But he liked what I chose and I liked what he chose. We rarely had arguments about anything.’
Herb, who is stroking Archie, their shaggy flame-pointed Himalayan cat, nods in agreement. ‘We’re not argumentative people,’ Dorothy concludes. ‘We like to get along, we believe in compromise.’
A guided tour of their apartment reveals that even the Vogels’ bathroom is replete with artwork. On one wall is LeWitt’s Wall Drawing £65 (1971), a mural completed by Dorothy according to the artist’s instructions: ‘Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using colours, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.’ Dorothy regrets that, because of the steam from the bath below, ‘the yellows have faded’. Opposite the lavatory is a minimalist text piece by Lawrence Weiner, words chosen to pass comment on the Vogels’ collection: ‘MANY THINGS PLACED HERE AND THERE/TO FORM A PLACE CAPABLE OF SHELTERING/MANY THINGS PUT HERE AND THERE.’
In their collecting heyday, the Vogels spent almost every night at gallery openings discovering new work. They were discriminating about who they would allow into their apartment and, to the gallerists’ annoyance, they bought straight from the downtown workspaces of the little-known and impoverished artists who populated SoHo and TriBeCa.
LeWitt, who coined the term ‘conceptual art’, was a big influence on their choices. They met LeWitt at the legendary Leo Castelli gallery in 1965, and became fast friends. Until LeWitt’s death last year, he and Herb spoke by phone every Saturday morning.’We looked up to him not only as an artist but as a collector,’ Herb says sadly, ‘and we followed a lot of his ideas.’ They would visit LeWitt’s studio to see what he was trading with other artists, and LeWitt arranged introductions to many of these emerging talents.
In an intimate new documentary about the Vogels by the Japanese filmmaker Megumi Sasaki, Chuck Close says that he always thought of the tiny couple as ‘the mascots of the art world’, and says that artists would offer them knock-down prices ‘because they were cute and funny and passionate and enthusiastic when no one was interested in what we were doing, but also because they came cash in hand.’
A drawing by Will Barnett, whose work the Vogels have collected extensively, depicts the couple looking at an artwork. Herb is shown bending over a canvas, as if sniffing the wet paint. ‘He points at the art like a hound,’ the artist Lucio Pozzi has said. ‘He’s like one of those dogs that digs for truffles, and his eyes become intense.’ In contrast, Dorothy is shown standing back, fingering her necklace in quiet contemplation. She would often leave the room while Herb bargained favourable terms with the artist. (They refuse to discuss with me the discounted prices that they paid, but acknowledge that ‘the collection is built upon the generosity of artists’.) Because of their financial constraints, much of what they own are drawings or preparatory gestures, and as a result the collection, unlike others made of trophy pieces, illuminates its participating artists’ working methods and offers a history of art behind the scenes.
Christo and his working partner-wife Jeanne-Claude remember getting a call from the Vogels and thinking, ‘Hooray, we’re going to pay the rent!’ But when Herb and Dorothy heard the artists’ prices they sighed, ‘Oh my god, we came too late.’ The artists, however, were flattered by their infatuated seriousness; they asked the animal-loving Vogels to look after their cat when they left for Colarado to build their monumental Valley Curtain and, in exchange, gave them a preparatory collage depicting the orange dam, the first of many works the Vogels now own by the Christos. The two couples became close friends, as the Vogels did with many of the artists they admired. ‘They’re friend-collectors,’ Christo says.
‘They treated us like we were artists,’ Dorothy says of the people they collected, ‘I think we shared the same sensibility, feeling and approach to art.’ The artist James Siena describes them as ‘more like curators than collectors’.
The first time that the Vogels made their collection public was in 1975, when they put on a show at the Clocktower Gallery, an influential alternative space that had opened two years earlier in Lower Manhattan.
The show featured 40 works by 40 of the artists they collected. It was clear to those who visited that, through their determination and good taste, the Vogels had captured an invaluable snapshot of the radical artistic experimentation of the previous decade.
Since then, they have been generous in loaning out their work to numerous institutions that were less prescient. Over the years they have been featured in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, New York magazine, The New York Times and numerous other publications interested in their rags-to-new-Medici story.
The Vogels always thought of themselves as caretakers of their collection rather than owners of it and, though they’ve kept a few works back to pay for long-term nursing care if needed (two Robert Rymans, for example), they have never sold a work they’ve acquired. ‘We always made decisions in the light of what was best for the collection,’ Dorothy says, proudly. Everything is hung haphazardly in their own mini-museum. ‘When we loaned something out there was a space and we put something else up,’ Dorothy explains, ‘It’s safer to put something on a wall than to keep it in a closet. We don’t rotate the collection, because it’s safer if you don’t move it around.’
One of the few pieces that was accidentally damaged was a work by Warhol, which was ruined when water from one of the fish tanks splashed onto it.
Ironically, even the National Gallery doesn’t have room to house the Vogel collection in its entirety and in accordance with their charter, they are not allowed to sell any of it. To solve this problem, curator Ruth Fine suggested a scheme, ‘Fifty Works for Fifty States’, which will see the collection distributed around America. Each of the institutions that accepts the donation will have to vow to display the works within five years of receiving them.
Herb is largely housebound now, and no longer has the energy to visit galleries or artists’ studios. Dorothy occasionally leaves the apartment to see Broadway shows with her theatre club. One of their rare trips out is a five-hour taxi ride to Washington twice a year to visit their collection. Their names are carved in stone at the top of a list of benefactors in the building’s airy atrium. ‘It’s like going to see your children who are at college,’ says Herb.
For once, they are more focused on distributing their collection than on adding to it. As Dorothy says wistfully, ‘Our collecting days are finally over.’
Source: Dec 2008, ‘The Vogel Collection: thoroughly modest Medicis’ , The Telegraph, accessed 05 August 2017, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/4029848/The-Vogel-Collection-thoroughly-modest-Medicis.html>.