Arts & Culture » Visual Art

50 Works 50 States

Collectors share the wealth

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Boise Art Museum currently has a show of 50 works, by a range of artists, covering the last 40 years of the 20th century. The pieces are small, many are on paper, and as a whole, it has a kind of low-fi appeal, more authentic than grandiose. It seems inventive and thoughtful, on the working side, like pieces you might find after digging around in someone's studio. There are a few "important" names--Lichtenstein, Steir and Barnet--but the name that really stands out is Vogel.

The 50 works in the show were gifted to BAM through a program facilitated by the National Gallery of Art, in which one art institution in each of the 50 states received 50 works from the Herb and Dorothy Vogel collection. BAM's gift represents one-fiftieth of about one-half of that collection.

The Vogels culled together a collection of about 5,000 pieces, then gave it all to the National Gallery. Generous? Yes. Impressive? Yes. But, then, the Vogels are special.

Herb and Dorothy met in New York City in 1960. Dorothy was a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library and Herb worked the swing shift at the Post Office. The two were married in 1962, and they honeymooned in Washington, D.C., where they visited the National Gallery of Art, and Herb revealed his passion for art. He never finished high school, preferring to peruse art books in the public library. In time, both became aspiring artists and began to associate with other artists. At one point, the Vogels realized they had replaced their own works of art hanging on the walls of their small one-room New York apartment with the work of others. As Herb states in the documentary film that accompanies the BAM show, they rather seamlessly went from being artists to being art collectors.

But how? Simple: They used Dorothy's librarian's salary to pay the bills and buy the food, and devoted Herb's Post Office salary to purchasing art.

This was just about the time Pop Art hit and Abstract Expressionism was at its market peak. In other words, even devoting Herb's entire Post Office salary to buying art wasn't going to be enough in those realms. So the Vogels began to search out what was next, and they began to visit artists who were working in an experimental vein called ABC art, or minimalism, making studio visits and buying art at a time when nobody else was doing so.

Looking through the images on vogel5050.org, it becomes clear that the Vogels were pluralists. Minimalism and later conceptualism do set the tone, but the only real rules the Vogels had were: the work had to be affordable, it had to fit in their apartment and they had to like it.

At one point in the film, Dorothy says, "When I look at conceptual art, I look at it from a purely visual point of view. If it appeals to me visually then I like it, if it doesn't then I don't. It's as simple as that."

This is a very strange approach to conceptual art. But then one doesn't get the impression that Herb and Dorothy were ever up late trying to articulate one of Lawrence Weiner's inarticulate articulations. One gets the feeling that for them, it was part of a whole package, a whole situation, in which an artist was in the middle of trying to be an artist. The artwork, even when all they could afford was a sketch or the plans for a work of art, was still a part of the process and the place.

In a television interview, when asked about his affinity for Sol LeWitt, Herb simply says, "What I saw in LeWitt was that I thought he was an original artist at the time, and even though I did not understand his works, he had, to me, a more-than-average potential."

In the film, Dorothy says the best part of the entire adventure was getting to know the artists. From the pieces gifted to BAM and the film, it seems that the Vogels went out looking for the presence of art and, when they thought they sensed it, they wanted a piece of visual evidence.

The Vogels are fascinating because they lived on the edge of poverty to buy art, they stuck with it tenaciously for 50 years, they somehow crammed five giant moving vans full of art into a one-room rent-controlled apartment, and--perhaps most interesting of all--they could be responsible for the best collection of minimalist, conceptual and post-minimalist art in the entire world, and yet they don't seem to have been engaged in the all-important dialogue of those realms.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rachel Beckman revealed that, for a spell, director Megumi Sasaki worried about her documentary film on the Vogels because they didn't articulate why they liked a particular artwork or artist. All they would say is, "It's beautiful. I like it." She wondered about how to make a film about art collectors who don't talk about art. In the end, she made a nice tribute and figured out how to make a film about collectors who don't talk about art: by making it the same way you'd make a film about an artist who doesn't talk about art. Just film them doing what they love. The Vogels tried as hard as any artist to figure out how to be artists in the time and place they were in. And they ended up creating a great body of work.