Movie Review: The Mighty Minimalists

Herb & Dorothy
Herb & Dorothy

The documentary “Herb & Dororthy” is not only a story about how to amass a world-class collection with a minimal income, but also a story of an exceptional couple whose passion for art and obsessiveness of collecting outshine others with deeper pockets and bigger stature.

Although the income from jobs as a postal clerk (Herb) and a librarian (Dorothy) maybe small, the stable jobs at least guarantee their income was not fluctuating with Wall Street. The jobs also necessitated they could pursue their passion in the afterwork hours. Moreover, there are too many collectors who are swayed by the market trends and buy artworks as if they are stocks. It seldom works because as Sister Wendy says, contemporary works need more time to be digested and understood. The greatest collectors buy ahead of the market with their eyes and hearts. By the time when certain artists or schools claim media and market appreciation, little room is left for opportunity seekers.

The Vogel’s bought what they like and what they could afford to fit in their budget and living space. I expected the movie would shed light on how Vogel’s judge the quality of or interpret the meaning of minimalism and conceptual art. But too few clues can be found in this film. On one occasion, you can hear Herb — the driving force of the collection (based on Dorothy’s comments)– remarking on a photo of “Keith” by Chuck Close as a process of the process, which would be used to choose crop marks for the larger work. Another case appears when Herb thought the small sculpture was placed wrongly and exclaimed that it is hard to make a small sculpture that feel like a big one. However, most of time the only diologue heard is to the tume of general comments like “they are beautiful” or “they are great.”

This is different from some adult museum-goers who feel disoriented and stupid in the contemporary galleries and walk away from the works before the resonance of the same comments die out in the gallery. The Vogel’s look. They look long enough as if there is a universe inside the artworks. And they look more, sometimes directly from the artists. They look not only completed works, but also processes and sketches. They may not paint, but they want to look at the artworks from the artist’s point of view.

Such understanding can be deeper than what words could purport. Thus whatever words they use to describe their feelings are not that important.

I have not been a fan of abstract art. For most of the modern or contemporary art, I either get it or could not stand it. But what Herb and Dorothy have shown is that the intellectual quality and interpretability is less important than the instinct stimuli and instant aesthetic enjoyment. Abstract artworks, even in the form of pure texts should be approached first as an assembly of lines & patterns, light & shades, colors and movements. In the least subjective manner, such works demand the most subjective, almost primeval comprehension. In short, words fail.

As much as I admire their fortitude in collecting, I disagree the way they pile up and hoard the collection in their one-bedroom apartment. Without National Gallery of Art, they would have probably never figured it out exactly how many pieces of artworks they had. Nor could they have displayed artworks properly. Modern and contemporary artworks need room to breathe, a proper premise they could not follow. In the documentary, I saw piles of folders next to the bed. What if the cat jumps onto the pile or scratches some papers? An art guardian should not only preserve the works, but also pursue to the best way to show their beauty. With more than 4,000 artworks in the one-bedroom apartment, I doubt they could even look at them frequently since they are in the perpetual hunting of the next one.

The final decision to select 50 museums in 50 states to donate their collection is a wise one since National Gallery of Art cannot absorb more than 1,000 artworks from their collection. True, NGA never deaccessions their works, but what is the purpose if those arts cannot be shown?

Again, I like to quote Miron True, the former curator of antiquities of the J. Paul Getty Museum. “But if we don’t show those things, and we don’t interpret them and we don’t use them to educate people, what are they surrounded by? Plastic and bad design and things that have no aesthetic quality at all.”

From Youtube: Herb and Dorothy: Philadelphia Film Festival Q&A

Megumi Sasaki director of the documentary film Herb and Dorothy and Ann Webb executive director of the Canadian Art Foundation discussed what inspired Megumi s interest in the story of the Vogels.

Reel Artists Film Festival: Megumi Sasaki, director of the documentary film Herb and Dorothy from Canadian Art on Vimeo.

About Art After X

With the death of President Kennedy in 1963, America changed. As hard as it is to minimize that sentiment, the effect of Dallas was even greater. The same year saw the merging of the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts, which had been central to the art scene, and the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Douglas MacAgy, then the director of DMCA, not only opposed the merger, but also declined to directorship of the combined museum. The regionalist movement which had been strong for decades, was giving way to more of an interest in what was going on nationally, and internationally. Like it or not, Dallas was on the national stage. When the Kennedy’s arrived in Fort Worth, local collectors had decorated a hotel room with internationally-renowned works. While the president and his wife learned a great deal about the ability of Texans to collect major art, there was little they could glean about the local scene in this era-defining city. With this in mind, we have begun a project to look not back at the art scene in Dallas, but foreword from 1963. We are interviewing gallery owners, curators and others involved in the art scene then, but this will be a story told mostly through interviews with artists active in the city from that point into the 1980s. The result will be a book with a video component. We hope you will join us in our journey. The hashtag for the project is #artafterx and the url will point to the latest updates on this weblog.


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I agree with you, the thousands of artworks should not have been displayed like that in their home, but all seems to have worked in the end. One of the reasons I thought the documentary was so powerful though, was that we saw the human interaction. I watched the film along side a filmmaker, a commercial artist, an animator and an engineer, none of whom would have watched it if I had not prompted a “screening”. Each of them was glued to the screen by the time the hour was up; and that perhaps is the most important part of the documentary and the donation to the NGA, that the Vogels have inadvertently taught so many people about contemporary art.

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