By Danny Peary
Megumi Sasaki’s charming documentary, Herb & Dorothy 50×50, opens Friday at the Sag Harbor Cinema, almost five years since her Herb & Dorothy won the Audience Award at the 2008 Hamptons International Film Festival. The acclaimed first film told the incredible story of two national treasures, Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postal worker and librarian who—while living in a tiny one-bedroom New York apartment with cats and turtles—spent 30 years amassing the world’s finest collection of minimalist and conceptual art, which they donated to the National Gallery in 1992. The sequel, both a biography and a treatise on art, is about the decision by the Vogels and the National Gallery, which ran out of space when the collection reached 5,000 pieces, to lend 50 works to one museum in each of the 50 continental states.
Herb passed away in May 2012, but I recently spoke to Dorothy about him, their inspiring 50 x 50 project, and the new movie.
Danny Peary: You and Herb never courted fame, so how is it now having two films made about you?
Dorothy Vogel: I’m amazed because we’re ordinary people and not used to all this attention. I try to just go with the flow. It’s well deserved but the recognition that Megumi has received is also a wonderful surprise because she’s like family. It is also very important to me that the artists in our collection get recognition.
DP: In the movie you talk about paintings leaving your “nest,” but didn’t you feel similarly about the artists you helped support before contemporary art became popular?
DV: That’s true. We were very proud of them and excited by their achievements. We appreciated each others’ friendships and followed their careers, sharing both their joys and sorrows.
DP: They felt they could discuss their art with you because as Richard Tuttle says, you have an “aesthetic eye.”
DV: We had different relationships with different artists, and some were more verbal than others about their work. Herb developed his eye for modern art and I learned from him, I absorbed it very quickly, but since we stopped collecting, I think I’ve lost that ability. We did it together. I don’t know if Herbie could have done much without me. I certainly wouldn’t have done it at all without him.
DP: Was collecting an obsession or a mission to gather as much art as you could at bargain prices?
DV: Herb was a little bit of a bargain hunter, but not me. He was also a hoarder. Maybe I am too. I never felt we were on a mission. But we were very obsessed. We just enjoyed collecting art. At first it was about gathering, then it was about distributing. Those are the two movies.
DP: In the new movie we see confused adults and teenagers looking at your collection in museums. Do you ever identify yourself and explain why something you call “difficult art” is worth a fortune?
DV: No, no, no. I’m too shy to go up to anybody and say it’s my collection. I assume people will have trouble liking certain art, but I don’t think it’s up to me to explain it. Unlike Herb, I never studied art history, so I don’t have the vocabulary.
DP: Did you think all the art you purchased was beautiful, or did you see something else?
DV: Maybe compelling ideas. We just felt it had importance.
DP: Did you immediately understand what you purchased?
DV: Herb said, “If we waited until we understood the work, we wouldn’t have been able to buy it.” I enjoyed looking at art; I never felt I had to understand it because what an artist tried to do and what we see are two different things. Art is subjective.
DP: Do you agree with Richard Tuttle that your collection as a whole is a work of art?
DV: Definitely. Richard was very skeptical about 50 x 50 because he thought it was breaking it up, just as Herb did initially. But it’s still our collection. And we didn’t break up Richard’s or any artist’s work.
DP: You’re admired for never selling anything that became valuable. Did you decide that at the beginning?
DV: We must have. But if Herb needed open-heart surgery, I would have sold something—but Medicare covered our medical expenses. And Herb never went into a nursing home.
DP: Were you two aware of the importance of the 50 x 50 project?
DV: Yes, as does the film. Not everyone can travel to New York or Washington, so we sent the art to them. Some of the museums give people their first access to the type of work that’s in our collection. They like our story so they look at the art and it’s a revelation.
DP: In the two films, others talk about your impact on their careers and contemporary art. Do you recognize your influence?
DV: It’s nice to be recognized by our peers, but it’s not for me to say if we were influential. Herb was much more conscious about the importance of art history.
DP: In the film, we see you’ve put Herb’s painting on an otherwise bare wall in your apartment. Is this the first time you’ve displayed one of his paintings since the 1960s?
DV: Yes, then virtually all of our work was on the walls, but we took it down and put up other artists’ works. And we never painted again. I feel I misjudged him. He was a lot better than I thought.
DP: I was surprised how big that painting is, because you liked small.
DV: No, we just couldn’t afford big. We liked big too.
DP: Why did you mount that particular painting?
DV: Because I was its inspiration.
DP: The film’s production notes state that after Herb’s passing, “Dorothy now works to create a living tribute to their partnership.”
DV: I don’t want people to forget what Herb did and who he was. He loved art and nature—that’s who he was. I talk about him when I tour with Megumi and her movies. I go to Japan, I go to Singapore. I just feel so sad that Herb’s not here to experience it with me.
An interview with Megumi Sasaki and interviews with other filmmakers can be found at “Danny Peary on Film” at sagharboronline.com.