Herbert Vogel, postal clerk and modern art collector, dies at 89

New York is full of dodgy urban legends. But the fable about the postal clerk and his wife, a Brooklyn librarian, striving to amass an astonishing collection of modern art, cramming all 5,000 pieces into a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment, then donating of the entire kit and caboodle at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and galleries in all 50 states, is true.

Herbert Vogel, who retired as a postal clerk in 1980 but continued to collect art, died Sunday at age 89 in a retirement home in Manhattan, the National Gallery announced. When he and his wife, Dorothy, donated thousands of works of art to the museum in 1992, then-museum director J. Carter Brown called their collection “a work of art in itself.”

So does the life of the couple colloquially known as Dorothy and Herbert (the order Mr. Vogel insisted on). Shortly after their marriage in 1962, they purchased their first work of art, a small crushed metal sculpture by John Chamberlain. Realizing that their own efforts to make art were not up to the standards of Mr. Chamberlain and other artists they admired, they began buying the works of others. Starting slowly, they bought what they wanted – within the limits of two civil service incomes – with the only criterion that they could take it home.

Installing it in their tiny Upper East Side apartment was no problem, as long as they were willing to dedicate their closets to art, get rid of their couch and other furniture, and perpetually tripping over paintings. Mrs Vogel told reporters that she did not – I repeat, has not – keep art in its oven. “We had no intention of living weird,” she said in a 1992 New York Times interview.

Roaming 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 mattered most, and the Vogel collection became a landmark for an often austere school of art that followed the long reign of abstract expressionism: minimal art, which often examined monochrome surfaces and essential forms. It was nowhere near as popular as Pop Art, which derived its colorful imagery from consumer products and was born around the same time.

There was also a buyer’s market for concept art, in which the image is an idea. An example in the Vogel collection was a few centimeters of frayed rope with a nail through it; another was a square of black cardboard with the definition of the word “nothing” printed on it in white.

Their style was to befriend the often little-known young artists who were doing new art. Thus, they bypassed the galleries, a practice that some in the art world later criticized as a fraud in the system. They bought on credit and were slow to pay. They didn’t have cars, took vacations, and ate TV dinners; one evening 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 keen to understand new directions in art, and they particularly liked the Vogels’ tendency to purchase works by artists over a period of years to capture evolving careers. “You knew when you sold something to them it was part of an important collection,” Chuck Close, who helped develop the style of painting called photorealism, said in a 1992 interview with Newsday.

Christo, whom the Vogels collected before becoming famous for his monumental works of environmental art, told the Miami Herald in 1989: “They collect certain artists passionately, and they collect them from the beginning, before the gallery or the interest critical.”

Among the artists the Vogels collected were Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd. In recent years they have 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 works that Herb and Dorothy accumulated over five decades.

Herbert Vogel was born in Manhattan on August 16, 1922, dropped out of school and worked in sweatshops in the garment industry. But he told the Smithsonian magazine in 1992: “I knew there was another world out there, and somehow I would find it on my own.”

After a stint in the military, he encountered Old Master paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This led him to contemporary art, and contemporary art led him to Cedar Bar, the haunt of legendary artists in Greenwich Village. There he listened with admiration to Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and David Smith.

“I was nothing – a postal worker,” he told The Times. “But I respected the artists, and they kind of respected me. They would talk until 3 or 4 in the morning, and I was one of those who listened. I remember it very well. I never even asked a question.

In 1960, he met Dorothy Faye Hoffman at a resort in the Poconos. On their first date, the art didn’t come. On subsequent dates, as they went to the movies and watched the presidential election comebacks together (Senator John F. Kennedy won), they fell in love. After their honeymoon in Washington, where they visit the National Gallery, they both take painting lessons. They quickly realized that they preferred to hang the works of other artists on their walls.

“I wasn’t bad,” Ms. 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 with their plan to donate 50 works of art to a museum in each of the 50 states. The couple enjoyed working with the gallery because it never sold a painting and admission is free.

In 2008, Megumi Sasaki made a documentary about the Vogels, “Herb & Dorothy”. Ms. Sasaki instructed her cameramen to focus on how Mr. Vogel’s eyes intensified and lit up when he liked something. Besides his wife, Mr. Vogel is survived by his sister, Paula Antebi. In 1992, Mr. Vogel, whose top Post Office salary 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.

Norma D. Ross