By Danny Peary
Herb & Dorothy 50×50 fits my category “Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.” And there is good news about that. It premieres at the IFC Center this Friday and by all means see it there if you’re in Manhattan in the next two weeks. But if you can’t get into the city or want to see it again or for the first time out here, it will be opening at the Sag Harbor Cinema on Friday September 27. Megumi Sasaki’s new documentary is a welcome follow-up to her Herb & Dorothy, which was released in 2008. (It won many awards including the Audience Award at the 2008 Hampton’s International Film Festival.) The first film gave us a fascinating up-close look at the legendary Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a postal worker and librarian who on their modest salaries amassed a priceless collection of minimalist and conceptual art beginning in the early sixties. When they donated their collection to the National Gallery in 1992, there were approximately 2,500 pieces that they put on the walls, on tables, in boxes and crates, and under their bed in their small New York apartment–which they shared with cats and turtles. Never selling a work of art, they would continue to collect until there were between 4,000 and 5,000 pieces total and the National Gallery had no more room to store it. That’s when the National Gallery and the Vogels announced they would launch a gift project entitled The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. A museum in each of the fifty states would receive fifty works from the collection–-with Buffalo being the New York destination–including works by such renowned artists as Richard Tuttle, Robert Mangold, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Charlie Clough, Sol LeWitt, Pat Steir, Robert Barry, Chuck Close, and Lucio Pozzi–all whose sputtering careers were helped by the Vogels before any one else purchased conceptual art or, later, had heard of them. The donation and the public reaction is pretty much what Sasaki’s second film is about, as she took her cameras to museums around the country. But it is also about, again, the extraordinary twosome as they approach their fiftieth anniversary together and share their art collection with the public, for free. Herb was able to attend several of the exhibitions but passed away before the completion of the film, which is very much a tribute to him and his and Dorothy’s legacy in the art world. Before Herb & Dorothy 50×50 plays at the Sag Harbor Cinema, you’ll be able to read my interview with the amazing Dorothy Vogel. But here is the one I did simultaneously with Megumi Sasaki, whose love and admiration of her two subjects–and art–is in every frame of her movie.
Danny Peary: You made Herb & Dorothy in 2008. Was that when you met the Vogels?
Megumi Sasaki: No, I met them in 2004. Two years before that I was assigned to do a story on Christo. I had been living in New York for a long time but I was working for Japanese public television, NHK, and went to Washington D.C. to shoot his exhibition at the National Gallery. It was a part of Herb and Dorothy’s huge collection that they had donated to the National Gallery in 1992. They weren’t in Washington but I met them at another Christo exhibition two years later, at Grace Mansion in New York.
DP: Did you ever do a TV piece on them?
MS: No. But I thought I may do it for the TV program, so that’s how I first approached Herb and Dorothy about shooting them.
DP: And eventually you told them that you wanted to make a movie?
MS: Yes, but not for awhile. I didn’t really think I’d make a film at the beginning. I just knew I wanted to tell their story.
DP: What in particular excited you about their story?
MP: When I first heard about Herb and Dorothy I was really, really moved. And I was totally shocked, because I couldn’t believe that it was a true story about real people. It’s not just because they were able to build a world-class art collection with their humble salaries, but that they never sold anything and finally gave everything away to the National Gallery so that people could enjoy art for free. And meanwhile they lived humbly, on their pensions, in the same one-bedroom apartment. They didn’t want any kind of fame or special status. I knew it was a good story, but even when I began thinking of it as a film, I thought about making a short, not a feature. It just evolved over time.
DP: As did your friendship with the Vogels.
MS: Our relationship evolved very slowly over time and over years. We became more than friends by the end of the first film. I spent so much time with them, including shooting countless times in their apartment. I was trained as a TV journalist, and I never had any close relationships with my subjects before. I thought it was much healthier to keep a good distance from them. But the Vogels became like family.
DP: While making the first film and seeing Herb and Dorothy in their collecting mode, did you believe they felt they were on a mission to collect and even rescue as much art as they could? I ask because there’s a great moment in the first movie when the Vogels are crossing a New York street and a weary Herb, who is usually the point man in going after the art, asks Dorothy hopefully if they’re through for the day and she rushes ahead saying they have a lot more to do. As James Siena says, “They wanted to see everything!”
MS: I didn’t think they felt they were on a mission. They weren’t on a goal-oriented thing at all. They just did what they wanted. One of the reasons I said I was moved by their story is that it’s not just a story about art collectors. I was moved because of their passion for collecting art and the power of that passion. What makes our lives so fulfilling? Passion. A lot of us can’t find anything we feel passionate about but they were so happy to have found a passion they could dedicate their whole life to. Their passion happened to be art and they pursued it and they stuck to it for decades. They were totally committed to what they really liked. And the result of their passion is that so many in the world can now share what they collected. So for me, the key word for the first film for me was passion. And in the second film, it’s sharing. The fruit of their passion is now shared by everybody.
DP: Did the 50×50 project originate before or after you made the first documentary?
MS: During. I finished editing Herb & Dorothy in June of 2008. The decision to donate 50 pieces of art to 50 museums around the country came about in April.
DP: In the production notes for Herb & Dorothy 50×50, you say that initially you were too burned out to think about making another feature, this time about the 50×50 project, but changed your mind when you attended with the Vogels the premiere exhibition in Indianapolis in December 2008.
MS: Yes, at first I wasn’t thinking about a full-length feature film–again. I went to Indianapolis six months after completing Herb & Dorothy thinking I might film the event to use as a DVD extra or something similar. I just thought it was important to document their collection, their gift project. But when I saw the exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, I realized it was the first time for me to actually see their collection. I had filmed at their apartment while making the first film, but I hadn’t seen the art because the deal with the National Gallery had been finalized. The 50-work package truly represented a collection. I was startled. It was the very first time that I got invited to step into that real universe, into the Vogel’s world. It was the very first time that I saw the collection in a museum setting, properly framed, and lit, and mounted on white walls. It was just so absolutely beautiful, and it made me feel that I wanted to learn more about the whole collection and how people were receiving it around the country.
DP: You said in your Director’s Statement in the production notes that the second film “began as a journey in search of art,” where you learned about art in a new way.
MS: Yes, it turned out to be that way.
DP: In all your time together, including in their apartment, at galleries and museums, and studios of various artists, did Herb and Dorothy ever explain to you what was so special about a particular work of art?
MS: Never. I learned from Herb and Dorothy, the most important lesson in art. What I learned is that art is something to experience. It’s really an emotional experience, I should say, and it’s unexplainable. I did not know that when I started making the first film about them. The first time I tried to interview them on camera, I had a very hard time, because no matter how much I tried to find out why they saw beauty in a piece of work, they’d just say, “We bought it because we liked it, because it’s beautiful.” It was that simple. I really thought that response was very problematic, but then it turned out to be a very important message. Why must we all try to understand and explain art, especially contemporary art? Why can’t we just simply say, “It’s beautiful” or “I like it”? I think one has a different kind of enjoyment depending on whether they do or don’t understand something, but it doesn’t mean you’re entitled to enjoy it only if you know something. Anybody can enjoy any work of art, whether it’s music, films, novels, or works of art. Does it open your heart? It’s very personal.
DP: There is a wonderful scene in the new movie in which Richard Tuttle, who has a long history with the Vogels, is at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey revealing how he sees his art and explaining to the staff how a series of his paintings should be lined up for visual and thematic reasons. Did you include that scene because you felt it contributed to your artistic journey?
MS: Richard is one of the most inspirational artists, for me. I learned so much from him. His art is very difficult in a way. I think his art is a good example of art that’s so easy to dismiss if you look at it superficially. But if you spend a really good time with the art, you’ll find the beauty. You’ll feel it crawling under your skin, up into your emotions. I included that scene because I feel that Richard is a very important part of the Vogel collection, and because I also wanted to show what the artist is thinking. It’s very rare that we can have a good look at the raw thinking process of an artist. A that moment, when he is with the curators of the Montclair Art Museum, they are engaging in real talk about art. That’s something that I could probably never get if I interviewed Richard.
DP: Because he would not give you his A conversation, as he would with Herb. Did Herb’s death in May of 2012 make you change directions with this film–or give it a focus for the first time?
MS: I thought this film was about the gift project and about sharing art. I was prepared for Herb’s passing during the production [because he wasn't well] but I was hoping that he would be able to see it. I was prepared but when he passed away, it was a very emotional experience for me. I didn’t want to get caught up with emotion, I thought, but how could I finish the film without it? So I had to think, “How do we really go through telling this story when Herb was a very important part of it?” After he died, Dorothy and I went to lunch with Herb’s sister and her husband, on Herb’s birthday. I found out two things. I hadn’t known that Herb was at first really opposed to the idea of breaking up the collection and sending it to museums in fifty states. I also didn’t know that he always had it in his mind that what he and Dorothy were doing would become a very important part of art history. That’s why in archival interviews and also often in my interviews, he often he used the word history. I hadn’t known where that came from., but after we had that conversation, I understood that was what he envisioned.
DP: So you included a scene at the Smithsonian, where they have boxes and boxes of material on art and artists that Herb had sent them over the years.
MS: Yes, we went to the American archives to shoot that part. We wanted to include more of Herb, including when he was younger in archival images, things like that. Just to connect the dots.
DP: What is your feeling about Herb and Dorothy’s impact on art history, including the 50×50 donation?
MS: The art itself, the collection itself, brings such an impact to every local community where a museum has received their gift. The gift is part of that museum’s permanent collection and they are required to exhibit it to the public within five years. I think their spirit of generosity is really a testament that art is for everyone. As I said, you don’t have to be rich or have to have a master’s degree in art history to appreciate art, or support art. And I think especially contemporary art, particularly the minimalist, conceptual art they collected, can be very distancing and intimidating. But everybody can enjoy it in their own way. I think their story gives access to enjoyment of art to everyone. It’s beyond art communities, it’s beyond America, it’s global. In Japan I never really imagined the people would love and enjoy this film so much. Dorothy went to Japan with me and she was like a rock star. We’re going to be traveling a lot together with this film.
DP: So collecting art wasn’t a mission for them, but telling their story was a mission for you. I would I think there’s something very gratifying to you as a filmmaker to be able to tell it.
MS: I wanted to complete their story by making the second film. They should be remembered in the history of art, and their collection should be documented and be appreciated by generations to come. So I’m very honored that I was able to tell the full story. Mission completed! Mission successful!