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Vogel collection at Blanton defies convention

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Seeing Things

Staff Writer
Austin 360

To hear Dorothy Vogel explain it, devoting a lifetime to assembling a singular and massive collection of post-war art was simply a matter of pursuing what she and her husband, Herbert, loved most.

"We simply bought what we liked," says Dorothy by phone recently from her home in Manhattan.

What the Vogels liked was outside the gamut of even the most savvy collectors.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the couple started acquiring small works by living New York-based artists, those pushing the stylistic boundaries with abstract expressionism, minimalism and conceptualism. Art that challenged conventions was what the Vogels liked. John Chamberlain, Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Elizabeth Murray were just some of the artists the Vogels befriended and collected.

As collectors, the Vogels themselves defied convention.

Dorothy was a reference librarian for the Brooklyn Public Library. Herb, as he's known, never finished high school and worked in a dead letter department of the United States Postal Service.

With no independent means, the couple lived modestly on Dorothy's salary, devoting Herb's for art purchases. In all, the Vogels' collection now numbers more than 4,750 works of art.

"The Collecting Impulse: Fifty Works from Dorothy & Herbert Vogel" is on view now at the Blanton Museum of Art through Aug. 12.

The modesty of many of the works in the current exhibit reveals what an intimate endeavor collecting was for the Vogels. Some drawings are clearly ripped directly out of an artist's sketch book, the perforations still in tack along one edge. And artist Daryl Trivieri's charcoal portrait of the Vogels is friendly and casual.

With an art world now besotted with money and glamour, the Vogels remain a singular example of art collecting for art's sake.

The couple donated their collection to the National Gallery of Art, where on their honeymoon in 1962, Herb gave Dorothy her first museum tour.

But as their collection was enfolded into the National Gallery, the Vogels realized that one institution couldn't exhibit or research all of what they had accumulated.

And so, working with the National Gallery staff, the couple devised "Fifty Works for Fifty States," one of the more unusual programs of art philanthropy. The Vogels selected one institution in each state to receive 50 works. A website, www.vogel5050.org, complements the "Fifty Works" initiative.

In Texas, the Blanton is recipient of the Vogels' largesse.

"We chose (the Blanton) because they were respectful of the collection," says Dorothy, now 77. (Herb is 90 and leaves the spokesperson duties to his wife.) "And we chose places that we had some kind of personal connection with."

The Vogels relationship with the Blanton dates to 1997 when a traveling exhibit of their collection went on view at the University of Texas museum, then called the Huntington Art Gallery.

In tandem with the current exhibit, the Blanton published a brochure with a numbered list of 50 facts about the Vogels.

In its matter-of-fact tone, the list belies just how the extraordinary the Vogels truly are.

No. 17: The Vogels had two requirements for buying art: "It had to be affordable and it had to be able to fit into the apartment."

No. 22: The Vogels bought most of their collections directly from artists out of their studios, breaking standard collector protocol; most dealers made an exception for the Vogels.

No 29: The Vogels acquired a work by collaborators Christo and Jeanne-Claude in exchange for cat sitting.

No. 38: Herb and Dorothy have lived in the same rent-controlled apartment on New York's Upper East Side since 1963.

No. 42: The couple got rid of all their furniture — except for a bed, a small table, and a set of chairs — to make room for their collection.

In 2008, the Vogels were the subject of the award-winning documentary "Herb and Dorothy," which brought greater attention to the unassuming, plainspoken couple. (The Blanton will screen the film on July 19.) A sequel, about the "Fifty States" program, is in the works.

The couple stopped acquiring art in 2009. And with Herb's vision deteriorating, the couple no longer makes the rounds of studio visits and museum tours.

"I still feel like it's our collection," Dorothy says.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

‘The Collecting Impulse: Fifty Works from Dorothy & Herbert Vogel'