The Postmodern Cache Tucked Under the Bed

by Christine Adams Beckett

Herb and Dorothy Vogel are very well known to those residing in the seemingly exclusive art world. They were avid collectors of contemporary art, obtaining over the course of their marriage a varied cross section of modern works from hundreds of artists. Spanning more than five decades, the collection grew to more than four thousand oeuvres by many obscure artists, as well as a handful of very well recognized ones such a Jean-Claude and Christo, Sol LeWitt and Richard Tuttle (who, for those Braving the Wilds of New Jersey, will appreciate was born in Rahway).

They rented a small one bedroom apartment in Manhattan and took to the business of collecting, amassing, as it were, an impressive cache of contemporary art at a time when these works were finding their own significant place in art history, establishing a new genre in its own rite worthy of catalogue and course. They lived off of Dorothy’s salary alone, and used Herb’s for nothing but collecting art. They had no children, save their art which Dorothy declares they “loved equally as if they were children.” They cared for cats, turtles, fish and piles and piles of art, until their own living space became an art warehouse, storage crates eventually replacing the furniture. There were portfolios neatly stashed under their marriage bed, rumored to have to be raised over the years to accomodate more art.

Lucky for us Americans, during their unassuming life together they became recognized, oddly rubbing shoulders during the decadent ‘80s with other more well-heeled collectors. Artists began to seek them out upon completing an endeavor. Their collecting was a deliberate, educated, steady course that relied on their own personal aesthetic as well as a keen knowledge of the developing world of contemporary art.

They lived simply whilst nurturing a gift: that of a shrewd eye and modest funding for collecting. Out of generous necessity, that collection, which began to push them out of their space, became not a retirement fund but an endowment. They simply gave it all away. And so it is that The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States became one of the largest gifts in the history of American Art. The 2500 works are catalogued on line and in its entirety making it truly accessible for all.

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings, Box 18, Group 13 R. Tuttle, Water Color on White Lined Notebook Paper Courtesy of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection

Loose Leaf Notebook Drawings, Box 18, Group 13
R. Tuttle, Water Color on White Lined Notebook Paper
Courtesy of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection

It is perhaps the Vogels’ personal relationship with Rahway’s own Richard Tuttle and his minimalist works that is allegorical, representing the Vogels’ married life together: steeped to a perfect strength of “beauty out of humble materials, reflecting the fragility of the world in his poetic works.” (from The Vogels were humble civil servants, Herb a postal worker and Dorothy a public school librarian in Brooklyn, and although they spent some time as newlyweds occupying a rented studio in Union Square to work on their own art, eventually gained more pleasure by collecting others’. Today, they share the beauty of that fragile world with all of us.

Amongst the more controversial works of the collection are Tuttle’s Looseleaf Notebook works, a postminimalist body of work that had been scathingly reviewed by the New York Times as “less has never been as less than this.” Yet his work in its simplistic beauty, offering a gripping and unoffensive, accessible narrative, can be found at other world-renowned museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and The Whitney. Lucky for those of us residing in Montclair, several of his Looseleaf Notebook drawings currently reside at the Montclair Art Museum, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, thanks to the 50×50 Collection.

A scene in the film Herb and Dorothy, recently screened at the Montclair Art Museum as part of the Free First Thursday event, Dorothy carefully thumbs through Tuttle’s Looseleaf Notebook watercolors, her hands carefully enveloped in white cotton curator’s gloves. Tuttle, the creator of some of Dorothy’s figurative art work “children,” was also the one most adamantly opposed to breaking up the collection. He perceived it as a violent and blasphemous act, as tragic as separating the two true stewards of love and beauty, the Vogels themselves. Thankfully for all of us, Tuttle came around to recognize that there was no practical way for such a large collection to remain together and endorsed – actually aided – its redistribution via The National Gallery.

It is a fitting full circle of events that the Vogels spent their Honeymoon in Washington, DC, mostly at the National Gallery of Art, and at the end of their collecting life negotiated with them an agreement by which the same Gallery at which they feted their marriage would provide stewardship of their collection.

Today Dorothy keeps close tabs on each states’ gifts, making sure that each institution exhibits the collection within the agreed upon period of time of five years. She regularly peruses the 50×50 website, ensuring that each work is photographed and downloaded online so that those who are unable to physically visit her “children” can do so by simply logging on. These are the tasks that keep Dorothy busy, as she declares her collecting days over. Now physically separated by the other half of her philanthropic collecting team, as Herb passed in 2012, she now focuses on redecorating her now barren apartment, visiting her donated works, and answering questions as a panelist at 50×50 museums across the country.

When questioned about which work she missed the most, Ms Vogel answered, “I really just miss Herbie.” To add tangibility to her statement: on the sparsely adorned, freshly white-washed walls of her modest apartment hangs one painting she never did get rid of: a 1960s portrait of herself by Herb, modern and representational, simplistic and beautiful as the nature of their lives together, and of the collection they so generously gifted to all of us.