How a librarian and a postal worker amassed a treasure


August 21, 1994|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- To get a handle on the extraordinary story of Dorothy and Herbert Vogel, let's begin with a list.

It appeared in the January 1994 issue of a respected magazine called ARTnews and is, to be precise, a list of the world's 200 top art collectors. Not surprisingly, the list contains names like Rothschild, Getty, Mellon, Rockefeller and Baltimore's own Robert and Jane Meyerhoff; names associated with fortunes made in banking and industry and, quite often, inherited wealth.

But the "ARTnews 200" list also includes two names that rank among the world's most unlikely candidates: Herbert and Dorothy Vogel. Who, by the way, are known in the art world as just plain "Herb and Dorothy."

Herb, 71, is a retired postal worker; Dorothy, 59, is a retired librarian. And over the past 30 years they have quietly put together one of the most important collections of minimal, conceptual and post-'60s art in the world. They were buying works by the likes of Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Donald Judd, Christo and others long before these artists' names were known. Of course, many people still don't recognize the names of the artists in the Vogel collection. But in the art world they are stars.

Which brings us to the obvious question: How could a New York City postal clerk and a Brooklyn librarian afford to do what usually is done by Rockefeller-type collectors?

The answer is simple. At least that's what the Vogels would have you believe.

"We lived on my salary," Dorothy says. "And we used Herbie's for buying the art. . . . It remains the same now that we're retired. We live on my pension check, and his pension goes to the art. It's worked out very well."

It helped, of course, that Herb and Dorothy were collecting minimal and conceptual art early in the game, long before it or the artists had gained fame and fortune. They were trailblazers, the kind of collectors who bought what they liked -- not what the art critics or art market liked.

But that raises another question: How did these two people who grew up in households devoid of art and who were born, as Dorothy has put it, not with silver spoons in their mouths but plastic ones, find themselves drawn to what might be the most difficult art of all to appreciate? So difficult that many people deride it, make fun of it.

"Well, that's OK, I don't mind that," says Herb. "It is difficult art. "It's even difficult for me. Even after 30 years, we still can't define it."

Dorothy, however, offers her definition of conceptual art. "Well, I know the general definition is when the idea is more important than the actual work. That the idea comes first. And then the artist, based on the idea, does the work. I think it's the ideas behind this kind of art that capture our imagination. But I also think what we've collected is very visual."

But what draws them to a particular piece of art? "Sometimes," says Dorothy, "I just like the way something looks. . . . You know, the way you feel when you buy a piece of jewelry or you buy clothes. You just like the way it looks. It just seems right."

Herb and Dorothy, both of whom top out at about 5 feet, met in 1960 at a reunion of people who had vacationed at Tamiment, a resort in the Poconos. "He was so cute," says Dorothy. "I liked him immediately." The feeling was mutual. They married in 1962 and, in what now seems a prophetic act, spent their honeymoon in Washington, where Herb -- who had studied art at night and aspired to be a painter -- introduced Dorothy to the treasures of the National Gallery of Art. Dorothy, who knew nothing about art, remembers the National Gallery "had a terrific place to eat."

They started collecting almost immediately, visiting galleries regularly each Saturday. Dorothy puts it this way: "The first thing we did when we got married was we got a cat. The next thing we did was buy a crushed metal car sculpture by John Chamberlain."

For most of their married life they've lived in a modest, one-bedroom apartment located in a Manhattan neighborhood dotted with bagel shops, fruit stands and one-hour photo shops. They share their seventh-floor apartment with seven cats, 20 turtles and approximately 19 fish.

It used to be more crowded. Until a few years ago, they also shared their apartment with more than 2,000 pieces of contemporary art they'd collected.

Apartment's a warehouse

"The apartment was really a warehouse," Dorothy says. Storage crates filled with prints and drawings were stashed under the bed, stored in closets, stacked in the living room.

"You should have seen it," says Herb. "It was from floor to ceiling. We just had little walkways through the living room. If you were a little heavy, you couldn't walk through at all."

"We had no living room," Dorothy says. "What little furniture we had we gave away."

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