Herbert Vogel, Fabled Art Collector, Dies at 89
Published: July 23, 2012
New York City teems with questionable urban legends. But the fable about the postal clerk and his wife, a Brooklyn librarian, scrimping to amass an astounding collection of modern art, cramming all 5,000 pieces in a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment, then donating the whole kit and caboodle to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and galleries in all 50 states, is true.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Herbert Vogel, who retired as a postal clerk in 1980 but kept collecting art, died on Sunday at 89 at a nursing home in Manhattan, the National Gallery announced. When he and his wife, Dorothy, gave thousands of artworks to the museum in 1992, J. Carter Brown, then the museum’s director, called their collection “a work of art in itself.”
So too were the lives of the couple colloquially called Dorothy and Herbert (the order on which Mr. Vogel insisted). Shortly after their wedding in 1962, they bought their first piece of art, a small crushed-metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. Realizing that their own efforts at making art were not up to the standards of Mr. Chamberlain and other artists they admired, they began buying others’ works. Starting slowly, they bought what they liked — within the strictures of two civil-service incomes — with the only criterion that they be able to carry it home.
Fitting it in their small apartment on the Upper East Side was no problem, as long as they didn’t mind devoting their closets to art, getting rid of their sofa and other furniture, and perpetually tripping over paintings. Mrs. Vogel told journalists that she did not — repeat, did not — keep art in her oven. “We didn’t set out to live bizarrely,” she said in an interview with The New York Times in 1992.
Wandering around the mountains of art were eight cats with names like Manet, Renoir and Corot. Twenty exotic turtles completed the scene.
But the art was what came to matter most, and the Vogel collection grew into a guidepost for an often austere school of art that followed Abstract Expressionism’s long reign: Minimal Art, which often examined monochromatic surfaces and essential forms. It was nowhere near as popular as Pop Art, which drew its colorful imagery from consumer products and arose around the same time.
There was also a buyers’ market for conceptual art, in which the image is an idea. An example in the Vogel collection was a few inches of frayed rope with a nail through it; another was a black cardboard square with the definition of the word “nothing” printed on it in white.
Their style was to make friends with the young, often little-known artists who were making the new art. Thus they bypassed galleries, a practice some in the art world later criticized as cheating the system. They bought on credit and were slow to pay. They had no car, took no vacations and ate TV dinners; a night out was a trip to the nearby Chinese restaurant. They sometimes did cat-sitting in exchange for art.
Artists liked to be taken seriously by patrons eager to understand novel directions in art, and they particularly appreciated the Vogels’ pattern of buying artists’ works over a period of years to capture evolving careers. “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection,” Chuck Close, who helped develop the painting style called photorealism, said in an interview with Newsday in 1992.
Christo, whom the Vogels collected before he became famous for monumental works of environmental art, told The Miami Herald in 1989, “They passionately collect some artists, and they collect them from the beginning, before gallery or critical interest.”
Among the artists the Vogels collected were Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd. In more recent years they collected works by Andy Goldsworthy, James Siena and Pat Steir, among others.
Earl A. Powell III, the current director of the National Gallery, said in a statement: “The radical expansion of intellectual and stylistic expressions in many media by European and American artists since the 1960s is reflected in the diversity of the works that Herb and Dorothy collected over five decades.”
Herbert Vogel was born in Manhattan on Aug. 16, 1922, dropped out of school and worked in garment-industry sweatshops. But he told Smithsonian magazine in 1992, “I knew there was another world out there, and somehow I’d find it for myself.”
After a stint in the Army, he encountered paintings by the old masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That led him to contemporary art, and contemporary art led him to the Cedar Bar, the fabled artists’ hangout in Greenwich Village. There he listened in awe to Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and David Smith.
“I was nothing — a postal clerk,” he told The Times. “But I respected the artists, and they sort of respected me. They would talk until 3, 4 in the morning, and I would be one of the people who just listened. I just remember it very vividly. I never even asked a question.”
In 1960 he met Dorothy Faye Hoffman at a resort in the Poconos. On their first date, art did not come up. On subsequent dates, as they went to the movies and watched the presidential election returns together (Senator John F. Kennedy won), they fell in love. After their honeymoon in Washington, where they visited the National Gallery, they both took classes in painting. They soon realized they would rather hang other artists’ work on their walls.
“I wasn’t bad,” Mrs. Vogel told Newsday. “I didn’t like Herbie’s paintings, actually.”
In 1992 five full-size moving vans were needed to move their art to the National Gallery, where they were soon feted by William H. Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, and David Rockefeller. In 2008 the gallery announced that it would help them carry out their plan to give 50 artworks to a museum in each of the 50 states. The couple liked to work with the gallery because it has never sold a painting, and admission is free.
In 2008 Megumi Sasaki directed a documentary about the Vogels, “Herb & Dorothy.” Ms. Sasaki had her camera operators focus on how Mr. Vogel’s eyes intensified and lit up when he liked something. In addition to his wife, Mr. Vogel is survived by his sister, Paula Antebi. In 1992 Mr. Vogel, whose highest salary at the post office was $23,000 before taxes, told The Associated Press that he and his wife could easily have become millionaires. “But we weren’t concerned about that aspect,” he said.