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Film Criticism by David O'Connell

Herb and Dorothy

June 11th 2010 04:13




A leisurely, but affectionate portrait of how a librarian and a postal worker became “mascots of the art world”, Herb and Dorothy (2008) is a documentary that champions the autonomy of subjectivity, passion for a cause and the sacrifices required to keep the fire burning within.

Herb and Dorothy Vogel have long been prominent figures in the New York art world, primarily because of how, for half a century, they've assisted the efforts of an astonishing volume of young and varied artists. Having met in 1960, they began as wannabe artists themselves. Before long they were honest enough to acknowledge their own limitations and found they derived much more satisfaction from procuring the work of budding, but struggling young artists.


They filled their rent-controlled Manhattan apartment with pieces that took their fancy, often venturing into the roughest parts of the city to ensure the validity of their next acquisition. Any prospective piece needed to pass certain standards however: if it couldn’t be carried home on the subway, they would have to leave it behind.

The Vogels, working with limited means, needed to be frugal but once they honed in on an artist whose work tickled their fancy, their pursuit became relentless. Together they’ve witnessed the rise and fall of a myriad of artistic movements though their own tastes mostly leaned towards minimalist as well as conceptual art where the idea behind the piece or series of pieces becomes more central to its success than the actual execution. Truth be told, some of their tastes are suspect, but then that’s the beauty of true artistic appreciation for the legitimacy of any single work forever rests in the eye of the beholder.


The Vogels themselves are an endearing pair and make for companiable guides through these reminiscences of their life. Herb is a doddering old man who gets around at a snail’s pace with a walking stick, whilst Dorothy, slightly younger, is fractionally more sprightly and vociferous of the two.
They’re like an old aunt and uncle you constantly defer to for the accumulated wisdom and years of hard living they carry around like a treasure trove of knowledge.

Perhaps you’re imagining Megumi Sasake’s documentary to be one that illuminates the rapidly increasing wealth garnered from years of eerily predictive collecting? In fact, the opposite is much closer to the truth for this remarkable couple decided early on to never sell anything for profit, instead donating their work to others and reinvesting any money gained back into the purchase of more art.

Now, a huge assembly from their personal collection is on display at the National Gallery of Art where lack of space has meant further additions are no longer feasible. Instead a program was established to siphon off smaller selections to galleries in 50 American states, forever ensuring the couple’s vaunted reputation.

The Vogels are indeed rich, but not by any financial measure. Dignified, humble, Herb and Dorothy charts the rise and rise of two people who have achieved a level of prominence they may not have sought necessarily, but which they've embraced nonetheless.

Perhaps the most revealing portrait of the couple is one of ordinariness as they sit amongst the stacks of books and pieces of art that have slowly consumed their dingy apartment, leaving it eternally packed to the gills. Herb sits quietly, seemingly half-asleep, whilst Dorothy works away on another sudoku puzzle and their beloved cats make regular fleeting appearances, in and out of the organised chaos.

This humble existence would seem to be inevitably tinged with sadness - a despairing impression of a grandiose, prosperous life that seeped away through their fingers like handfuls of sand. Indeed, this most obvious of inferences couldn’t be further from the truth, for these people are blissfully happy, sustained by lives lived to the fullest and on exactly the terms they chose for themselves.





© 2008 Fine Line Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.



Herb and Dorothy has just been released on DVD by Madman Entertainment.







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Comments
4 Comments. [ Add A Comment ]

Comment by Matt Shea

June 11th 2010 09:39
Great write-up, Dave. I spotted this in the video store but I've been caning the docos recently so decided to give it a miss. Will no doubt check it out when I can.

Comment by David O'Connell

June 11th 2010 11:23
Thanks Matt, it's very modest, this little doco, and filmed in the most basic manner but the subjects are interesting enough to maintain your attention. It'd be hard for anyone to dislike the Vogels and the degree to which they helped so many artists is pretty staggering really.

Comment by Tessandra

June 15th 2010 10:01
Aww... Dorothy likes cats and Sudoku. She reminds me of someone.

Comment by David O'Connell

June 18th 2010 11:55
Hi Tessandra, that's an interesting combination, cats and sudoku. Indeed Dorothy's life might seem fairly boring in isolation but she really has had an amazingly full and rich life. There's a great scene during the end credits where she finally embraces technology too and buys her first computer!

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