Film Review: Herb & Dorothy

Delightful, involving documentary about an unlikely couple who became pioneer contemporary art collectors with working-class salaries.

No doubt “humble” and “contemporary art scene” rarely inhabit the same sentence, but debuting filmmaker Megumi Sasaki’s wonderful portrait of Herb and Dorothy Vogel summons these words.

The couple, who back in the ’60s entered the contemporary art scene by patronizing then-unknown artists, came from humble backgrounds (Herb grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; Dorothy had modest beginnings in Elmira, New York).

They worked humble jobs. Herb sorted mail for the Postal Service and Dorothy was a librarian. Both shared a passion for modern art. Using Dorothy’s earnings to live on, the couple spent Herb’s salary to build their collection. But the Vogels were much more than mere buyers. They befriended, frequently visited, and coddled struggling artists who were often living in the city’s worst neighborhoods.

Herb & Dorothy works as a primer on the art of collecting. The benignly obsessed Vogels looked very carefully at every piece and responded instinctively. They had fun, reveled in being surprised, and bargained humanely, often paying in installments. Most hilariously, the Vogels packed their one-bedroom rental with art literally running up the walls and across the ceilings and floors of every room. Piles of art, whether canvases, sculptures or mixed media, made for unbelievable clutter as purchases over four decades got shoehorned into their small space. Getting by with old furniture and appliances, the Vogels lived simply, even as the value of their collection grew to many millions.

The pair are also likeable because they are so sincere and clearly caring, not just of the art but of those in their world. They never sold a single piece and finally donated their huge collection (the more than 2,000 works filled multiple moving vans) to D.C.’s National Gallery of Art.

Filmmaker Sasaki gets everything right and was further blessed with access to many artists and curators. (Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold and Lynda Benglis are but a few of the couple’s fans to show up and “Vogelize.”)

A big audience award winner at a number of festivals, with potential to attract a sizeable art-house crowd, Herb and Dorothy also informs about how to appreciate, if not understand, modern art. It also may be riding a new wave of films about old people. Gotta Dance, Up and Music Box Films’ upcoming Cloud 9 are just a few that come to mind.

And talk about product placement! At film’s end, after the collection has found its new home, Dorothy finally brings the low-tech Vogels into the 21st century by visiting a well-known Chelsea computer store and buying a spanking new Mac. In the “What a deal” tradition of the Vogels, Apple surely didn’t have to drop even a dime for this movie plug.