There’s an unfortunate disconnect, or chasm, between art and those that are removed — in either geographical distance or, more often, income bracket and social standing — from its creation and most readily accessible exhibition. Megumi Sasaki’s Herb & Dorothy, though, shows that gap to be largely an artificial construct, telling the fascinating true story of a New York City couple who amassed an impressive private art collection despite their modest means.
In the early 1960s, Herb and Dorothy Vogel threw themselves into minimalist and conceptual art, at least partly because abstract expressionism and pop art — two other on-the-rise sub-genres of the time — were too expensive for their budget. She was a librarian and he a postal clerk, and their collecting — funded by his salary, since they lived in spartan fashion off hers alone — was guided by only two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, which they also shared over the years with a couple cats.
Within these simple limitations, they proved themselves curatorial visionaries. Now married for 45 years, the Vogels managed to accumulate over 2,000 pieces, and in 1992 decided to bequeath their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Weaving back and forward in time, and judiciously mixing archival footage with loads of new material, Herb & Dorothy tells the story of the pair’s unlikely rise to prominence in the art world, and how they came to be the most important benefactors of their era for many young artists who were at the time not receiving any other sort of attention elsewhere.
The movie’s roster of industry interviewees is a long and impressive one, including artists like Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close — who deems them “mascots of the art world” — James Siena, Lynda Benglis, Will Barnet and Robert and Sylvia Mangold. Their reminiscences are candid and most frequently warm; Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the married couple responsible for the breathtaking 2005 exhibition of The Gates in New York City’s Central Park, recall exchanging a piece of prep work art for several weeks of cat-sitting services. Most artists seem to regard the Vogels in an avuncular light, though there is some discussion of whether some of their lowball offers amounted to exploitation.
If there’s a big knock on Herb & Dorothy, though, it’s that Sasaki’s film lacks a stabilizing leg of sustained familial exploration; while some time is spent sketching Herb’s childhood and the couple’s meeting, it’s almost half an hour into the movie before Dorothy’s brother and sister-in-law are introduced, and their too-brief comments — which hint at a sort of understandable bafflement and separation that serves as a suitable stand-in for the confusion a lot of folks feel with respect to the endeavors, occupational and avocational alike, of their loved ones — about the couple’s wildly different lifestyle is never given full due. This is a naturally sweet story, but there should still be more of a pinch of friction, either in exploring how Herb and Dorothy’s collecting ostracized them from friends and family, or, honestly, how their pack-rat collecting extended far beyond critical mass, and fire safety regulations. This wouldn’t unduly demean the subjects, or diminish their collection, but it would further humanize them, and only to serve to underscore the passion for art that has shaped and driven their lives. (Arthouse, unrated, 87 minutes)