Herbert Vogel, unlikely art collector and benefactor of the National Gallery, dies at 89

Herbert Vogel, a retired New York postman who, along with his wife Dorothy, created one of the most unlikely and important modern art collections in the world, and then bequeathed much of it to the National Gallery of Art, died July 22 at a nursing home in New York City. He was 89 years old.

His death was confirmed by Anabeth Guthrie, spokesperson for the National Gallery of Art. The cause of death was not immediately disclosed.

In 1962, when Mr. Vogel and Dorothy Hoffman got married, they came to Washington for their honeymoon and spent several days visiting the National Gallery and other museums. On their return to New York, they began to buy some pieces of artists they met, gradually amassing their collection.

Unlike many collectors, the Vogels were not rich people. They have lived and received their entire lives on their wages and pensions. Mr. Vogel worked nights sorting mail in New York post offices, and his wife was a reference librarian in Brooklyn.

The Vogels never talked about the price they paid for a work of art and did not sell any pieces they owned until the National Gallery acquired much of their collection in 1991. To at that time, its value was estimated at several millions.

Herbert and Dorothy Vogel at the University of Michigan in 1978, from “Herb & Dorothy”, an Arthouse Films release, 2009. (Cecil Lockard)

“We could easily have become millionaires,” Mr. Vogel told The Associated Press in 1992. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still have a few more. But we weren’t concerned about that. aspect.

When they first began collecting in the early 1960s, the Vogels – known to many in the art world simply as “Herb and Dorothy” – focused largely on concept art and design. minimalism. It was difficult and daring work, often with straight lines and little ornamentation, that stood out from the most well-known abstract expressionist and pop art movements.

Their first purchase was “Crushed Car Piece” by John Chamberlain, who made sculptures from destroyed auto parts. It was not the kind of art that was in great demand.

The Vogels visited studios and became close friends with many artists including Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle and the husband and wife duo of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They were often the first collectors to open their wallets to buy from unknown artists. Over a period of nearly 50 years, the Vogels have amassed more than 5,000 works of art, including drawings, paintings, sculptures and pieces that defied classification.

“Many millionaire collectors wouldn’t have the nerve to buy the kind of cutting-edge art that the Vogels have enthusiastically embraced,” Philadelphia Inquirer art critic Edward J. Sozanski wrote in 1994. The Vogels, continued Sozanski, have created “one of the remarkable collections of American art constituted in [the 20th] century, which covers most of the important developments in contemporary art.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel had three requirements when it came to buying works of art: they had to be cheap; it had to be small enough to be transported in the metro or in a taxi; and he had to go back to their one bedroom apartment. Over time, the little couple – neither of them were much more than 5 feet tall – became recognized in the art world. They haunted galleries and studios in New York City, attending as many as 25 art events a week. They studied art magazines and kept in close contact with dozens of artists.

“They didn’t have deep pockets,” said Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, in an interview. “They weren’t collecting works by famous artists at the time, but many of them later became well known. “

What started on a whim built on small purchases grew into a rich and varied collection that included many prominent artists from the past 50 years: Chuck Close, Donald Judd, Robert Mangold, Dan Flavin, Joseph Beuys, Brice Marden, Nam June Paik, Edda Renouf, Edward Ruscha, Robert Ryman, Julian Schnabel, Robert Smithson, Carl Andre, Lynda Benglis, John Baldessari and Jeff Koons.

“We never bought anything because we thought it was important,” Mr. Vogel told The New York Times in 1992. “We bought things that we liked. It’s not about the price. It is about feeling.

The Vogels acted on intuition and personal taste, trusting their instincts rather than the advice of consultants or high-priced galleries. They negotiated directly with the artists, sometimes buying on installments, paying only $ 10 per month. They once received a collage from Christo in exchange for a cat sitting.

Pat Steir, whose paintings often resemble waterfalls, met the Vogels through LeWitt, an artist known for his geometric paintings and sculptures.

“When they first bought from me, I called Sol and asked them, ‘What should I charge them? “Steir told W magazine in 2008.” And he said, ‘Take out three zeros and cut the price in half.’ And then they paid month by month on the installment plan.

The artists considered it a privilege to be included in the Vogel collection and an even greater honor to be invited to the couple’s cramped apartment for a meal. Dorothy Vogel would sometimes offer a televised dinner that she would heat in the oven.

Their small apartment was quickly overrun with art, which hung from the walls and was stacked on the floor and under the bed. They got rid of their couch and had only enough room to sleep, eat, and care for their cats – up to eight at a time – and the turtles and exotic fish that Mr. Vogel kept in aquariums.

“They were a couple without children,” said Ruth Fine, a recently retired National Gallery curator who has worked with the Vogels since 1987. “Works of art have become the central focus of their lives. “

When Mr. Vogel retired from the Postal Service in 1979, he used his pension to buy more artwork. He and Dorothy began to think about what legacy they wanted to leave in the world, and many top museums came to call them.

On their 25th wedding anniversary in 1987, the Vogels visited the National Gallery, where their love affair with art – and with each other – had blossomed.

Jack Cowart, the curator of 20th century art at the National Gallery at the time, met the Vogels and toured their home in New York City.

“It was a very small apartment,” he recalls recently. “It was particularly dark and it was especially filled with packing cases, shirts, artwork and books. Works of art hung from the ceiling and I banged my head against them. There were turtles and cats. It was astonishing. The collection had taken over the apartment.

After years of negotiations with Cowart and then-director J. Carter Brown, the Vogels agreed to send their core collection to the National Gallery. The terms were never disclosed, but the deal included both purchases (from the National Gallery) and gifts (from the Vogels).

“We wanted to do something for the nation,” Mr. Vogel told the Houston Chronicle in 1992. “The National Gallery does not sell the works it acquires. They will keep the collection together. And they don’t charge entry.

When curators began cataloging the collection, it took five full-size moving trucks to transport the Vogels’ art to Washington from their apartment.

“It was a legendary collection,” said Cowart, who is now executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. “We all knew that the National Gallery would never be able to acquire, piece by piece, such a stunning collection.”

The National Gallery’s Vogel collection now contains over 900 works, and nearly 300 more have been pledged to the museum. The National Gallery held major exhibitions from the collection in 1994 and 2001.

“Their collection has been lovingly formed in a very personal way,” said Powell, director of the National Gallery. “They weren’t collecting for the National Gallery of Art. They were collecting for themselves and for an apartment in New York.

Herbert Vogel was born August 16, 1922 in New York City. His father was a tailor and he grew up mainly in Harlem. He never finished high school.

After serving in the military during World War II, Mr. Vogel began working as a postal clerk, sorting mail at various Manhattan post offices. He mostly worked nights, which allowed him to study art history at New York University during the day. He never told his colleagues about his interest in art.

He married Dorothy Hoffman in 1962. Besides his wife, survivors include a sister.

The Vogels took painting classes and had a studio for several years, hoping to develop careers as abstract expressionists. They abandoned their studio when they realized that they were more interested in the work of other artists than in their own.

They lived simply, eating in neighborhood restaurants and Chinese restaurants. They stopped traveling to Europe in the 1970s in order to have more money to spend on art. They usually paid cash or worked out new arrangements with artists.

“When they came to the studio, they always came with a wad of cash,” famed painter Chuck Close said in a 1992 interview with New York newspaper Newsday. “You always end up selling something for a fraction of its value. “

The Vogels were featured in “60 Minutes” and in a 2008 Megumi Sasaki documentary film titled “Herb and Dorothy”. Their names were carved into the wall at the entrance to the west building of the National Gallery alongside those of other great benefactors.

After the National Gallery moved around 2,500 rooms from the Vogels’ apartment in 1990, they filled it with art over the next 20 years.

Mr. Vogel couldn’t always explain why he loved certain works of art more than others or what he looked for when collecting. Sasaki, the director of the 2008 Vogels documentary, ended up focusing the camera on his eyes, which instantly widened whenever he saw a new piece of work he admired.

“I just love art,” Mr. Vogel said in 1992. “I don’t know why I love art. I don’t know why I love nature. I don’t know why I like animals. I don’t even know why I love myself.

Norma D. Ross