They Knew What They Liked

Herbert & Dorothy Vogel's Extraordinary & Personal Art Collection

Study for Keith by Chuck Close

It's not too late. You still have a chance to meet the Vogels -- in a manner of speaking, of course. Seventy-eight minimal and conceptual art objects, a relatively small portion of their extensive collection, remain on view at UT's Huntington Art Gallery through December 14. This exhibition is as accurate a reflection of the couple as any mirror might produce. Stand in front of the little Eva Hesse drawing, tiny "x"s on graph paper that form precise patterns. Think about this ordered grid, about the order imposed on life, about the everyday struggle to make sense of life's gridlock to quietly arrange times for beauty within the imposed patterns of our lives. Your eyes should be drifting to the left, now, noticing the Donald Judd sculpture jutting off the wall, a simple form magically suspended in place, casting light and shadows that seem as important as the solid mass itself. That mass interrupts the plane of Jo Baer's white diptych, each half subtly outlined in blue and black. If you stand in just the right place, the three objects seem conjoined for the moment, like Siamese triplets. The Vogels have always had an excellent and consistent eye for the cutting-edge.

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel married in 1962. They are a diminutive couple, plain on the outside but complex and passionate once you make that first effort to shake hands and engage them in conversation. The Vogels don't loom large and showy like some collectors or shrink away, either, when the conversation turns serious. My own conversation with them began on a less-than-serious note. "Have your cats [there are five] ever destroyed any of your artwork?" I asked Dorothy. "No, but the fish have," she replied. Dorothy has a way of answering the most ordinary questions in the least predictable way. She was a librarian. Her husband was a postal worker. They lived on his salary and bought art with hers. Both are now retired. They have no children. "We bought art we could afford and that would fit into the apartment," they say. Water from the fish tank once splashed a Warhol they owned. It later had to be restored.

Valley Curtain Project for Rifle Colorado
by Christo

Almost all the individual works in the exhibition titled "From Minimal to Conceptual Art" are small-scale like the Vogels themselves (and their apartment!) and made of plain materials, mostly minimal in color. The Huntington is one of four venues outside of Washington, D.C. hosting this exhibition, which was organized by the National Gallery of Art. The Vogels have made an arrangement with the National Gallery to gradually give over to it every piece of their collection. In return, they receive an annuity, a considerably smaller amount of money than if they had sold their work at auction.

John Paoletti's essay in the accompanying catalogue walks the reader through contemporary art trends and tries to help the viewer understand the significance of this collection. He contextualizes Carl Andre's squares of metal that cluster unpretentiously on the gallery floor, Donald Judd's box cantilevered off the wall, Richard Tuttle's oddly shaped white canvas, and Christo's Package 1974, a lopsided, brown-paper lump secured with rope and sitting on a pedestal. Paoletti says:

The proliferation of styles and artistic production during the last half century shows that artists are searching for new forms of visual language.... The works in the Vogel collection are about the very nature and experience of art itself. They represent for the first time in the Western tradition such a radical investigation into the communicative properties of works of art and the surrounding in which they are perceived.

More interesting perhaps and certainly easier to read is the interview with the Vogels conducted by Ruth Fine. Herb Vogel took art history courses, he painted, he introduced Dorothy to painting after they were married, then they both stopped making art because they came to understand that they were better collectors than painters. When it is time for my interview with the Vogels, he sums up their history for me quickly, then insists I move ahead with my questions. Herb Vogel is assertive, though not unpleasant or overly aggressive in sharing his point of view.

Dorothy explains how their collection, which is as quiet and thoughtful as the couple, proves that minimal and conceptual art isn't necessarily aggressive. This becomes the central theme of our discussion. What other contemporary collectors often lose is the character of the work when viewed as a whole. They purchase "good," often expensive, objects chosen by consultants, but the resulting collection has no unique or personal point of view.

Herb has a point of view, and it is unique. He likes to "jab" people, just a little, in conversation and with his art. He sits quietly as long as he can, then steps in and takes the lead in our discussion. He and Dorothy are different in their approach. He has read art history books -- still reads them -- and looks at everything. She is intuitive and prefers to look mostly at contemporary art. She finds individual objects that she wants to buy. He believes in collecting particular artists in depth. He relies on Dorothy's taste in Sol Lewitt, for example, but where she might own one or two, he has purchased one after the other. It is their custom to spend every Saturday looking at art together.

Their collecting reflects teamwork start to finish, although each responds differently on their innumerable visits to galleries, museums, and artists' studios. He likes to move slowly through galleries and can stand for hours in front of a painting, communing. She walks quickly, makes up her mind about a piece, and quickly moves on. He engages in dialogue with individual works, explains to himself -- though he avers to discuss his philosophy with others -- how the work moves him, how it relates to others in the collection, how his own needs are (or aren't) met by each individual object. Sometimes they peruse galleries with artists -- Richard Tuttle is a good friend -- learning from their point of view. Both Dorothy and Herb count artists as their friends, saying that there hasn't been time for relationships outside the art world. They didn't consider themselves collectors until arts professionals began to ask if they could come by to visit their collection. They admit to being impressed with the attention at first; now they take it in stride. Family members don't understand exactly what Herb and Dorothy see in the art they've collected ("They thought we were nuts!" says Dorothy), but they developed a respect for the process once publicity began to swirl around the couple's gift to the National Gallery and their appearances on TV.

Pani Rang 17
by Lynda Bengalis

Not too long ago, the CBS news show 60 Minutes invaded their tiny New York apartment, and a skeptical Mike Wallace followed Dorothy from room to room. He asked what a little ropey squiggle by Richard Tuttle "meant." She answered, "It doesn't mean anything. It's art." If you were to visit that apartment today, you'd find five cats, the unruly fish, and a number of turtles. In 1990, the National Gallery of Art took all their art away to be catalogued, but today every room is again full of art on display and art in crates, along with supplementary materials and documentation. The Vogels have purchased all these works in the past seven years. They have plastic stacking chairs in case people come to visit, but otherwise, not much furniture.

Recently, another exquisitely personal art collection assembled by Victor Ganz, who died years ago, and his more recently deceased wife Sally, was sold at a Christie's auction for $206 million. The sad thing about this, says Herb, is that once the hoopla is over and the collection disassembled, it will be as if the Ganzes have died all over again. Their collection was an extension of their personalities and a reflection of their shared passion for art and artists. While the work remained together, it expressed a great deal about who they were. Now all that remains is a coffeetable art book displayed in random homes across the country. When the Vogels -- he is 75, she is in her sixties -- are gone, their collection of more than 2,000 works will remain together under the stewardship of the National Gallery of Art. It will document a significant period of artmaking in the United States during the last four decades of the 20th century, and it will also describe, in a very vivid way, the two people who brought that work together.

"From Minimal to Conceptual Art: Works From the Dorothy & Herbert Vogel Collection" continues through December 14 at the Huntington Gallery, 23rd & San Jacinto, UT campus. Call 471-7324 for info.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More by Rebecca S. Cohen
Art for Healing
Art for Healing
The stunning art collection of the Dell Children's Medical Center

Jan. 18, 2008

More Than Something Hanging on the Wall
More Than Something Hanging on the Wall
Robert Bonar on the Dell Children's collection

Jan. 18, 2008

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle