-Conducted by John Held, Jr.
Herbert and Dorothy Vogel are concrete proof that one needn’t be rich in amassing a significant art collection. In 1992 the postman and librarian donated nearly 5,000 works of art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. In 2008, they announced that a total of 2,500 of these works would be distributed to museums in all fifty states, with each museum receiving 50 works. The couple was the subject of the 2008 film, “Herb & Dorothy,” directed and produced by Megumi Sasaki, which did much to extend awareness of the couple’s legacy. Sasaki has now produced and directed a new documentary about the couple, “Herb & Dorothy 50X50,” capturing the last years of Herbert’s life and the couples generosity in planning and executing the 50X50 project. Herbert passed away at the age of 89 in the summer of 2012, and Dorothy is still dealing with his loss. The current film is both a tribute to him and the continuing chronicle of the couple’s gift to the nation.
John Held, Jr.: We share being a librarian…
Dorothy Vogel. Oh, you’re a librarian?
…and we went to the same school.
University of Denver?
No. Syracuse University.
I graduated as an undergraduate from Syracuse. What were you doing in Syracuse?
Going to school.
Where were you living?
I’m originally from Long Island. I went up to Syracuse to study Library Science.
When were you there?
I graduated in 57…58. I don’t remember the exact year.
But you didn’t go to Library School there?
I was there as an undergraduate. There were a few places that taught Library Science to undergraduates. I spent my first two years at the University of Buffalo, and then I spent my last two years and graduated at Syracuse. But I went to the University of Denver for my Masters in Library Science. I had two majors as an undergraduate – one in Literature and one in Library Science. When I went to Denver, they accepted a whole quarter worth of studies from my undergraduate days. So, I only had three quarters to get my degree…I took one class in each quarter.
You were a Reference Librarian at Brooklyn Public Library?
I worked in the Business Library most of the time.
Really? They didn’t shuffle you up to the Art Library with all your experience?
Nope. I really didn’t have the background for it. I never studied art. Not that I studied business, but I ended up in the Business Library.
But certainly over the years you picked up enough knowledge.
I probably could have, but I never studied it. I can answer the questions on Jeopardy, but that’s about it. What did you study?
Well, I became an Art Librarian. I was in Dallas a number of years. I practice art as well – Mail Art. I saw the long list of artists that you and Herb collected over the years, and I was surprised not to have seen Ray Johnson [the “father’ of Mail Art] listed. Do you know his work?
I thought we did have something. We had a few things he mailed to us. I think they went to the National Gallery, but not the 50/50 project, which is probably what you looked at. We knew him. We used to see him all over.
He was a gallery hopper.
Who were some favorite artists you were fond of dealing with?
I don’t know if they were favorites, but we were very close to Richard Tuttle, Robert Barry, Charles Clough, Bob and Sylvia Mangold. We were friends with a lot of them.
You and Herb were painting before you began collecting.
My husband was painting when I met him. When we first got married, I started taking courses in drawing and painting, too. I wanted to be an artist. But all that time, he had works he collected before I met him, So, he had a little collection before.
After the marriage, you decided you weren’t going to become painters?
Well, no. I didn’t take my art courses until I was married. I took it because of him. He was taking painting courses. I started with drawing and went to painting. I didn’t know anything about art when I met him. I didn’t learn anything about art until after we got married. On our honeymoon, we went to Washington. One of the first places we went to is the National Gallery. That’s when my education began. So, the National Gallery became a very important part of our story.
You began by going around to galleries?
It’s just something my husband…we didn’t do it while we were dating, but as soon as we married we soon started going to all the galleries and museums right away.
And then asked the gallery owners which artists…?
Well, my husband knew a lot of artists. My husband belonged to the Artists’ Club. I don’t know how often [he went] to the Cedar Tavern. He was in the art world when I met him, and I learned through him.
That was in the early fifties, Herb was doing that?
I met him in the early sixties, but he was part of the Artists’ Club in the late fifties. I went to a few meetings myself – the tail end. I never went to the Cedar Tavern.
Maybe that was too macho for a librarian.
When I started going to galleries in 1962, I don’t think it was there anymore. That was slightly before my time. People used to go to Max’s Kansas City. They went to Fanelli’s. There are other places that artists hung out, but the Cedar Tavern was not one of them at the time.
Were you going to Max’s Kansas City?
Hanging out with Warhol and company?
I don’t know if you’d call it hanging out. I remember going to eat there. I remember going to Fanelli’s, which is a local tavern right in the heart of Soho. For a long time they had opening parties at the Limelight. There were several big discotheques. There was one called the Palladium. I remember being invited to opening parties at these disco places. We met people there. That’s what we did.
I know you concentrated on Minimalism and Conceptual art…
We had more then that. We had things that we liked. We weren’t that restricted.
Did you know any of the Fluxus artists, by any chance – George Macunias, Nam June Paik…?
I knew Nam June Paik. Ken Friedman…is he still alive?
Oh, yes. He’s living in New Zealand teaching at a Business School.
He was a Fluxus person.
And Peter Frank, who was Ken’s friend?
Oh, yeah. Very well. We used to go around to galleries with him and Stephanie Barron, who later went to LA County Museum. In fact, this screening [of “50X50”] is going to be in Los Angeles. I’m not going, but she’s got Peter Frank to talk about it. So, you know Peter Frank?
We knew each other from New York. He’s a big shot in L. A. now. He’s famous for being a gallery goer when he was 16, or so.
He was very young. No. No. We knew him then.
Ken was very young during that time period, too. He just turned 65 yesterday.
Why did he end up in such a far away place?
He was teaching in Sweden for a long time. Now he’s in New Zealand. He teaches at Business Schools. Interesting you are both associated with business.
Well, that’s where they placed me. I didn’t have an interest in business. I knew what business was. (laughs) That’s about it.
Did you know John Cage very well?
We knew him, but not well. We have some works, but we got them from a dealer who had a gallery in Cincinnati, but I can’t remember his name.
Carl Soloway. Yeah, I’m very interested in the Black Mountain College artists.
That was before my time. Rauchenburg…
I think Rauchenburg’s son has a gallery in San Francisco.
I think they have mainly photography. I can’t remember his name. We were in San Francisco when we met him. I think it was during Christo’s “Running Fence,” although it may have been for Richard Tuttle’s opening at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
So you’ve been to the Bay Area over the years?
When I was going to school in Denver, I came out to California with some friends. We drove out. We went to Denver to Salt Lake and San Francisco to Los Angeles. After Herbert and I were married, believe it or not, in 1962, we took a bus trip. Trailways had this thing – for $100 you could go anyplace in the United States, so we took the bus to California. We stopped in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and came to San Francisco and down to Los Angeles. We went to the Grand Canyon then home. So, we were in San Francisco then. Then we came for the “Running Fence” with Christo, and Richard Tuttle’s opening. That’s the extent of my visits to San Francisco. When we were invited to screen this film, I decided to come to San Francisco, but I didn’t want to go on to L. A. I was just in Los Angeles in February, when they gifted LA MOCA. I went with Herbie’s sister. We flew on a Sunday, were there on Monday, and flew back on Tuesday. Another quick trip. So, I was just in Los Angeles, I really wanted to come to San Francisco.
We’re happy to have you here. There’s a lot made of you and Herbert being the “proletariat” collectors. Do you resent that?
It doesn’t bother me. People sensationalize things. We just did what we wanted to do, and distributed it the way we wanted it distributed. And that’s it. We met a lot of interesting people along the way.
I think that’s the most interesting thing of all – to meet the artists whose work you admire.
And we got to travel a little. Why not? I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to travel, so this opportunity came along, and I said ok. If I could go to Japan on a fourteen-hour trip, I can certainly take six hours and come to San Francisco.
When were you in Japan?
I was there in March.
What were you doing there?
Same thing we’re doing here. Attending the screening of the film and doing Q & A’s. We traveled from Sapporo in the northern part down to Osaka. Not just Tokyo. We were there for ten days.
Did you go to Kyoto?
Yes. I love Kyoto. Have you been there?
I have. I just curated a show on the Japanese Gutai group. Do you know their work?
They were doing early performance oriented works – painting with their feet, throwing bottles of paint.
Sort of like Yves Klein.
As a matter of fact, some say that Klein, who was in Japan in the mid 1950s to study Judo…
And that’s how he got the idea?
Possibly. They had some influence. Kaprow knew about them. They were doing performative acts before Happenings.
Kaprow was in New York before he went to California. My husband knew him. We actually went to one of his Happenings. In a book about Happenings there’s a picture where you can see Herbie and me.
Did you go to other events like that?
We went all over. One time we went to Art and Engineering.
Oh, the Rauchenburg E. A. T. [Experiments in Art and Technology, “Nine Evenings: Theatre and Engineering,” 1966]
I remember going to see Stockhausen and seeing Nam June Paik walking around. We went to all that kind of stuff. We belonged to Filmmakers Cinematheque that showed art films.
Your papers are in the Archives of American Art.
Well, I’m now starting to give them to the National Gallery of Art. They have a new archivist there at the National Gallery, and I enjoy dealing with her.
You were dealing with curator Ruth Fine at the National Gallery.
She’s not there any more. She’s retired from the National Gallery. She was working on a catalogue raisonné for Rothko. She’s on different Boards and curating special shows. She’s still working, but she’s independent right now.
It seems as if you had a very good relationship with her.
Yes. Very much so.
It was interesting that you got the idea for the 50X50 project from the Kress gifts made to several art museums, including the National Gallery.
She had the idea [Ruth Fine]. The Kress Collection’s main core is at the National Gallery. So, everybody who works for the National Gallery is very familiar with the Kress Collection. Their collection of old master European paintings is at the National Gallery. She happened to be visiting [a museum] in El Paso – it’s one of the places Kress had some of their gifts. And she the idea – why not have the Vogels here- she knew we had this problem with what to do with the rest of the collection. So, she got the inspiration from visiting one of the Kress installations.
It’s a fantastic project, and it seems like you are keeping up with it by building a website and following it’s progression.
Well, I could be closer to it – I’m not very good with the computer. I’m really having a lot of trouble. When I check some of these things, I get kicked off. I’m very backward when it comes to computers. I’m seriously considering getting an ipad, or some kind of backup to e-mails…I’m still exploring other things. I’m the problem, not the technology.
What’s it like having the works gone and off your walls?
They took them out in October , so we put up framed posters from the different shows [at the museums featuring the 50X50 project]. I really want to paint the apartment, so I’m not interested in putting anything else up.
And you still have the cats, the turtles and the fish?
One cat. A sixteen-year old. Herbie died last July (2012), and by August they were gone. I gave them to a pet shop in the neighborhood. The fish died quite early. My husband stopped taking care of the fish tank, and it started to get mold. When he was in the nursing home three years ago, I had a handyman get rid of it. So, the only live animal we have now is sixteen-year old Archie. And I hope he’ll be alive when I get back home.
Those were some of the biggest cats I’ve ever seen.
Archie is pretty big. We had to have him shaved. I’m not very good at brushing him. My husband used to take care of that. So, he looks kind of weird right now. He’s a big cat with a long tail and shaved in between. He looks like a baby lion.
Are you still going out to art events these days?
Not much at all. I go to gallery openings of friends…Charles Clough. I saw a few shows. That’s something that I did with my husband. I don’t really like going by myself. I joined some of the New York museums. I go to the Museum of Modern Art and have lunch there and see some shows. I’ve joined the Guggenheim, but I only used it twice. I’m thinking of renewing, but I’m not sure. I only used the Jewish Museum once, but I do go to the Met frequently and the Whitney.
Thank you so much for your time. My belated condolences on the loss of Herbert.