Herb and Dorothy Vogel are a New York postal worker and a librarian—two ordinary people who, since the 1960s, amassed a truly extraordinary, world-class art collection which, at its zenith, comprised somewhere in the region of 5,000 individual pieces. Megumi Sasaki’s documentary explains how and why they built the collection, as well as the Vogels’ interesting personal relationships with many of the artists whose work they admired—interesting because in the New York art world, at least according to this film, such deep friendships between artist and collector are rare. Herb had always been interested in art; he took a job as a postal worker sorting mail and went to the library in his spare time to learn about art history.
Over the years the Vogels became famous as unassuming regular people with an expensive passion that appeared to extend far beyond what their means would seem to dictate—though they managed to curate a small museum in the spare rooms of their apartment without going into debt or spending more than their jobs allowed. Much of the collection is conceptual, minimalist and post-minimalist; artists include Chuck Close, Sol Lewitt, Robert Mangold, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude, to name just a few. Rather than simply presenting a basic overview of a selection of pieces, the film looks at a piece and delves into the artist’s intent at the time and the connections said piece has to other works by the same artist, and in the same style by different artists. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths: a story about the couple alone would have been nothing more than an extended interest piece on a current affairs tv show, but Sasaki has managed to bring the collection to life by surveying not just the art but the artists, too.
Though their apartment is small, the couple never sold a single piece—Herb doesn’t believe in trading on the popularity of money from someone else’s work—but in 1992 they moved about two-thirds of the collection out of their relatively tiny Manhattan apartment, and donated several thousand pieces to the National Gallery. Aside from a dry ‘made-for-public-television’ tone from which any film like this is bound to suffer, one of the doc’s few weaknesses is that it takes this part of the story—boxing up and moving several thousand artworks out of a cramped brownstone—too seriously; it’s almost like watching hundreds of clowns get out of a Mini: you can’t not laugh. That aside, the film is a really nice little story about an ordinary-seeming couple making a comfortable living—a couple who just happen to have an unusual knack for picking out pieces whose back-stories are equally as interesting as the people who collected them.