Herb and Dorothy

Independent Lens

Here are Herb and Dorothy Vogel:


Herb-and-Dorothy.jpgLet's be honest: these people do not look like rock stars. 

And yet: in the art world, Herb and Dorothy -- he, a retired postal worker, and she, a librarian -- are rock stars in the extreme. They are rock stars for amassing an incredible collection of Minimalist and Conceptual art (view the collection); they are stars, too, for donating said collection, worth millions of dollars, to the National Gallery of Art...and for refusing compensation. Let me say that again: they refused compensation. This is not like Madonna, or Bono, saying, "no, no, National Gallery, consider this art a gift." Herb and Dorothy are people of modest means. They live in a tiny New York City apartment, filled with their pets: cats, turtles, fish, and whatever art they haven't, at this point, given away. And yet, when the National Gallery finally convinced them to accept payment, did they splurge on a bigger apartment? Buy a fancy sports car? No. They bought more art - art which they plan to donate, eventually, to the National Gallery, so that members of the public can enjoy it for free.

This, apparently, is just how Herb and Dorothy roll.

So we learn in a documentary, aptly titled "Herb and Dorothy," that aired last night on one of my favorite series, Independent Lens (if you missed it, check here for reruns, or check for local screenings - unfortunately, you can't watch the film online, and there doesn't seem to be a DVD). The couple's compulsion to collect art is striking, as is their apparent disinterest in material wealth. But what's most interesting is this: an hour of television featuring two such unlikely (and, let's face it, not very pretty, superficially speaking) characters. Herb and Dorothy do not look the part of art world denizens -- where's the bleached hair, the sleek clothes? No casting director would ever hire them. On television, characters are so often symbols -- of a demographic, a profession; but Herb and Dorothy aren't symbols of art collectors....they're just people who collect art, as compulsively as bees collect pollen. Not pretty-flowers-in-a-vase art, mind you, but challenging art..."weird" art. The kind of art that some people point at and say, derisively, "Pfft! I could have done that." ("But," as my grandfather would have said,"you didn't.")

This plain-looking couple is edgier, it turns out, than most people who bear the trappings of edginess. As artist Chuck Close says in the film, Herb and Dorothy are drawn to the least decorative, most rigorous pieces an artist creates. Just as they do not symbolize art collectors, they do not treat art as symbolic -- of what's "in," or "hot," or "important." They're drawn most of all to artifacts of the artistic process ("souvenirs," as an artist in the film puts it), versus end products that represent an artist's fully realized vision. The reason for this is clear: Herb and Dorothy love artists. They esteem them. They celebrate the process of making and sharing art above all else.

This, of course, is completely antithetical to so much commercial television, which treats reality itself as a commodity to be packaged, marketed and consumed. As "Herb and Dorothy" shows, there is no greater artistic process than the process by which we build our lives.


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Excellent review! I am very excited to see this documentary I just have to catch it first!!

They're only unlikely if you don't know much about art collectors. One of the great collections of American furniture was amassed by a NY couple who taught in the public school system.

Why the reference to how they look? What's that got to do with their taste in art?

Chuck Close isn't "edgy", not in the art world.

This review is so simplistic and banal. It doesn't actually talk about the documentary or what the filmmaker brought to telling the story--the writer's too hung up on how people look. This reads like a blog comment, not even a post. I'm disappointed that PBS didn't bother to have a serious critic watch the film and write something worthwhile.

Belinda: I was commenting on appearance because television is a visual medium, and you don't see a lot of programming featuring people who look like Herb and Dorothy. I was trying to celebrate an hour of television that didn't force stereotypical representations of character "types." Of course, many hours of PBS programming defy the superficial conventions of commercial TV, showing us people and lives we don't see anywhere else. But I think many people not immersed in the art world expect collectors to "look" a certain way, so I was playing with that expectation. Clearly I didn't do a good enough job as a writer to make it clear that I wasn't just obsessed with their looks for superficial reasons. Interesting to hear about the furniture collectors you mention - what are their names?

"you don't see a lot of programming featuring people who look like Herb and Dorothy."

It's a documentary film, not a reality-based series on MTV!

when are they doing a rerun of this emotional life?

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