In the Wolcott Gallery at the Fleming Museum, a few dozen works of contemporary art are on display in an exhibit with the intriguing name “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works for Fifty States.” For museumgoers who might pause at the word “contemporary,” be assured there are no mammals preserved in formaldehyde, à la Damien Hirst. There are, however, laminated photocopies of drawings; a small sculpture made from pieces of cardboard; a ball of steel cable; an abstract painting on Masonite; and a small, grayish canvas with, if one looks carefully, a single thread removed.
On the face of it, the exhibit is a microcosm of the major art movements of the 1960s through the 1990s — including minimalism, conceptualism and post-minimalism — which can often seem remote and inscrutable to those not trained in art history.
Yet there is warmth to this particular ensemble of contemporary art. As the catalog photographer, Lyle Peterzell, is quoted saying in an introductory essay, “[A]lthough these were serious works of art, they came from a free-spirited, calm and joyful place. It was hard not to feel good just being around them.”
That warmth is due to the people who chose the works, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. From their marriage in 1962 until Herbert’s death last year, the New York City couple bought art they liked and admired from the young, radical artists of their time. They had limited means. She was a librarian in the Brooklyn Public Library system, he a mail clerk with the United States Postal Service. But, using his salary for art purchases while drawing on hers for living expenses, they eventually amassed more than 4700 works.
The collection crowded the Vogels’ tiny Upper East Side apartment long before reaching that number and, in the early 1990s, they began donating works to the National Gallery of Art. That venue, this civil-servant couple reasoned, charged no entry fee and didn’t sell donated works. But even the National Gallery couldn’t handle a donation of that size, so its curators worked with the Vogels to distribute 2500 of the works around the country by gifting 50 works to one museum in each state.
When Fleming director Janie Cohen heard about the Vogel project a few years ago, she recalls during a recent walk-through of the exhibit, “I called the National Gallery to say the Fleming would be thrilled to be the repository” of the Vermont gift. Particularly appealing to her was the prospect of strengthening the museum’s relatively thin permanent collection of post-1970s art.
Cohen was told that the decision had already been made, but the NGA would not reveal which Vermont museum had been chosen. A letter arrived two weeks later announcing Fleming as the recipient.
Which works the Fleming received was also out of Cohen’s control. Each state was gifted at least one work by each of six artists the Vogels collected in depth: Robert Barry, Charles Clough, Richard Francisco, Edda Renouf, Daryl Trivieri and Richard Tuttle. The Fleming got Renouf’s “Sound Piece I” — that minimalist canvas with one thread removed, whose “subtle movement” Cohen admires — and Francisco’s post-minimalist piece “End of the Day” made of tissue piece paper stretched over a frame of balsa wood. “Such a delicate piece,” comments the director.
Other works seem selected to display the broad range of objects that caught the Vogels’ eye. (Only half of the Vogel gift is currently on view. The rest, mostly works on paper, will replace, or be integrated into, a spring-semester exhibit.) One painting is flamboyantly figurative: a flower arrangement in oils by Lucio Pozzi on the entrance wall.
Cohen says she was particularly pleased to find a work by Dutch artist Carel Balth in the Vermont gift. “Line I,” from 1977, consists of four photographs depicting a beam of light on a portion of wall at four different times of day. Cohen is herself a Balth enthusiast: She included his work in a show she curated in Boston in 1989 on contemporary Dutch artists.
Two other works Cohen points out show Herbert and Dorothy’s differing tastes, which she describes as “whimsical” and “conceptually rigorous,” respectively. Though they decided on their purchases together, Herbert’s taste is evident in “Wall Pal,” a colorfully patterned abstract plaster face by Rodney Alan Greenblat. Dorothy preferred pieces such as Loren Calaway’s “Untitled (2 Parts),” which looks like two parts of a wooden desk hanging on the wall. The work seems to reference the decorative arts, Cohen points out, but any sense of familiarity it encourages is upended by the indecipherable schematics pasted in its cubbies.
“It’s not easy,” Cohen, a modern-art specialist, acknowledges of the exhibit.
What “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works” conveys most strongly, however, is not opacity but intimacy. The Vogels, she says, didn’t just browse galleries in their lifelong search for art. “They were very curious, went to studios, engaged the artists in depth about their work and in the process became friends with them.”
Many of the works in the Vogels’ collection were gifts from appreciative artists, including, at the Fleming, an adoption announcement in the form of a glazed white ceramic baby’s head from Michael Lucero and his wife, Cheryl Laemmle; and Laemmle’s birthday gift to the couple of one of the most striking images on paper in the ensemble: a sleek surrealist head with slit eyes.
The Vogels convey another message with their gift: One need be neither wealthy nor trained in art to appreciate and collect it. Though Herbert had taken some art-history classes at New York University and purchased a few pieces before marrying, Dorothy had no background in art. Together they developed their tastes, painting on weekends for three years until their interest in viewing and collecting took over.
Over time, says Cohen, “they became really educated. Looking is the most important thing. They trained their eyes and minds. And,” she adds, “their hearts.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Collecting Couple"