Recently, Mr. Lousy and Raúl have become fixated on Albert C. Barnes, his priceless collection of artwork, and the bitter battle over the possession and purpose of said collection under the ever-shifting auspices of the Albert C. Barnes Foundation.
The story is fascinating, infuriating, and enlightening, one in which assumed good guys (big name charitable foundations) really do act like bad guys, and little (or littler) guys can seem selfish, snobbish, and condescending. I wrote about the one-sided film The Art of the Steal, which included some biography on Barnes, but focused almost exclusively on the art world war several decades after his death, when through a series of (possibly calculated) misfortunes and obvious manipulations, the Barnes Foundation’s original mission of art education was perverted and the invaluable collection was transferred to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution the collector despised as the epitome of elitist art. The film has a bitter taste that left Raúl suspicious of gigantic charitable foundations, their motivations, and their means of operation – not what he’d expected. The filmmakers present the acquisition of the foundation/collection as one protracted heist, with machinations and plotting as careful and timed as an Oceans 11/12/13 movie that lasts over a decade.
Mr. Lousy and later Raúl recently watched the PBS documentary, The Barnes Collection. Lousy reports that this leans far more toward biography, with new details about the collector’s life as well as a window into his philosophy of art and the purpose of art in society. This documentary skirts the enormous issue of the controversial move of the collection, not surprisingly, as the charitable foundations involved in the Barnes takeover are also major patrons of PBS.
I do wonder if there is a censorship process in PBS projects, either in the form of a tacit self-censorship or in the form of a committee beholden to sponsors. Public television, do you sit in the lap of charitable foundations which operate like for-profit corporations? If you are going to include Collection in the title of your project, aren’t you obligated to follow it as well as the man who formed it? By leaving the controversy out, they’ve rendered the documentary even more one-sided than The Art of the Steal. If you are going to tell the story of the collection, you can’t leave out the final degradation of Albert C. Barnes’ legacy.
Why am I rehashing Albert C. Barnes? Because I’ve found the antidote to the ugly fight over his collection with an endearing documentary about a married couple of working class collectors who amassed an astonishing collection that they housed privately – though within their lifetimes they found a home for it.
Herb and Dorothy Vogel! They became a sensation in the minimalist art world from the sixties through the new millenium by slavishly following specific artists and negotiating private deals directly with the artists to purchase the pieces that they found beautiful – and that they could afford on their salaries of postal worker (Herb) and municipal librarian (Dorothy).
They became well known in the minimalist art movement before it gained major traction, and therefore managed to collect numerous pieces before many of the artists became big. The two are quick to note that some of the artists featured in their collection never made it big, but Herb and Dorothy seem to esteem their pieces no less for the lack of prestige. They just bought what they loved.
And they loved a lot. While Albert C. Barnes initially attempted to show his collection publicly and was derided for Modernist works that were not yet accepted by the art establishment, therefore creating his own space in Merion, Pennsylvania to form his own education-focused gallery, Herb and Dorothy just wallpapered their small one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with pieces, thousands of pieces. Well, it wasn’t just the walls – they started in on the ceiling as well, and stacks of paintings were under the bed and behind furniture. Private curators, they also draped what appear to be afghans over some works that might be damaged by the very un-museumy lighting.
If you are thinking they are hoarders, you are absolutely fucking right. They could barely function in their own home, with paths squeezed in between loads of framed canvases standing on the floor and mobile-esque sculptures hanging from the ceiling. They even commissioned one piece, which the artist – I forgot who – said he made for the bathroom because it wouldn’t fit anywhere else.
Yet this documentary is not yet another prurient peek into the lives of people with hoarding disorders. We’ve got enough of those. Instead, first-time director Megumi Sasaki zeroes in on how the Vogels establish relationships with artists, view art in both public and domestic settings, explain why they collect art that they can’t even look at for the clutter (Dorothy is stunningly convincing here), and demonstrate how deeply their passion for art runs.
Raúl must admit that he does not share their passion for Minimalist or Conceptual art, but that didn’t detract even a sliver from his appreciation for the film and its subject, which is the Vogels, far more than the art that they collect, though the art and the minimalist artists are featured at length. The artists, in fact, are nearly as taken by the Vogels as the Vogels are by their art. Chuck Close offers anecdotes of their visits to his studio, while Christo and Jean-Claude confess that the Vogels keep them up-to-date on the NY art scene – and even recount an early art deal involving a piece exchanged for cat-sitting.
Sasaki balances the biographies of the two collectors with their collections and in the process, emphasizes that art is not only in the eye of the beholder, the beholder of the eye does not need to be a fabulously wealthy, über-educated art devoté or a sharp business dealer who phones in astronomical bids at auctions. The Vogels took classes and educated themselves on art – and gave their private lives over to it.
There is no one quite like the Vogels. Artists began to follow them and incorporate them into their work. It’s no wonder as the two make fascinating character studies. I won’t even attempt to describe the disparate pair when Will Barnet distills them into a single sketch better than ten paragraphs detailing their manners and contrasts could:
While the temptation is to write them off as cutesy and eccentric, as the film trailer might suggest and as the 60 Minutes piece with Mike Wallace is guilty of, Sasaki presents them as they present themselves to the art world, certainly as cute (I’m sure this was a key factor in their favor in negotiating price), certainly as eccentric (they’re contrasted with family members and co-workers), but moreover as passionate followers of art, which they feel no need to explain or justify. They like it because it’s beautiful – in their eyes – and that’s that. Herb in particular emphasizes that his tastes are his own and he would never want to impose them on anyone else.
He would, however, like to share them, which is a difficulty when the entire collection is crammed into their apartment along with fluffy pet cats and Herb’s aquariums and giant tanks full of live turtles. Yes, that is correct.
The final segment of the documentary details how the works moved out of the Vogels’ apartment and into a new setting. I don’t want to discuss this part because it’s what really makes the Vogels spectacularly special and underscores why they collect and how they view art in terms of socio-economic class and access. It’s a return to the Barnes fiasco, but fixed right, so long as The National Gallery of Art keeps up their end of the deal. (And Raúl feels trusting here.)
The act of generosity that concludes the film made me feel weepy in a good way. This is philanthropy delivered by the Vogels almost casually, but it’s sublime, especially in their explanation of how they selected the institution to receive their gift. Like the artists keep repeating, there is no one else like the Vogels.
Herb passed away last month, and it’s hard for me to imagine Dorothy viewing art without him. But before he died, they ensured that the collection would continue, and it’s more accessible than ever. Just go here and get lost in it. Even Raúl did.
Herb & Dorothy makes for an excellent antidote to the Barnes saga. Like Barnes, they were collectors ahead of their time, and like Barnes, they eventually sought to share their artwork. Unlike Barnes, they did it on a budget, without traveling to Europe, but sticking mostly to New York, and unlike Barnes, they were never at war with the art establishment (though dealers didn’t appreciate the couple undercutting them). Unlike Barnes, the Vogels did not believe that the quality of art could be measured objectively, nor did they feel it was their duty to educate others on how to view art.
And most importantly, unlike the Barnes Collection, the Vogel Collection has found a home that is both permanent and spread across the entire country – all fifty states – that satisfies them and promises to remain to their dream and the charter which protects it.
The film also ends beautifully, with Sasaki’s camera following the Vogels as they shop for their first laptop computer. While Dorothy handles the transaction and explains the practicalities that she will need – and nothing more, please – Herb gazes into a giant aquarium full of swirling fish in mesmerizing blue. We’ve seen the look in his eyes before – rapt, intense, transfixed, mystified, and, well, beautiful.