The term “art collector” conjures up the image of a billionaire industrialist, decorating the walls of his mansion with Van Goghs and Picassos. You’re less likely to think of a postal worker whose tiny rent-controlled Manhattan apartment was crammed with edgy, visionary post-World War II minimalist and conceptual works, much of it purchased inexpensively from the era’s great artists back when they were still unknowns.
Herbert Vogel, who passed away yesterday at age 89 in New York City, may not have been a Medici or a Mellon. Nevertheless, over the past half-century, he and his wife Dorothy quietly amassed more than 4,000 art objects, mostly drawings, from artists ranging from geometric conceptualist Sol LeWitt to satirical sculptor Richard Tuttle. Best of all, the Vogels eventually chose to share their collection with the rest of us, donating much of the artwork to the National Gallery of Art. More than 1,400 pieces originally purchased by the Vogels have been exhibited in museums throughout the nation as part of the Vogel 50X50 project, a joint effort of the National Gallery, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, another government agency.
Herbert Vogel may have been able to build such a remarkable collection precisely because he wasn’t a billionaire but rather an ordinary Joe who simply, sincerely loved art. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Vogel worked as a mail sorter by night so that he could attend art history classes at New York University during the day. In the early 1950s, he sometimes went to the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, a hangout where he got to meet artists such as Mark Rothko and Franz Kline. “I was nothing — a postal clerk,” he told an interviewer in 1992. “But I respected the artists, and they sort of respected me. They would talk until three, four in the morning, and I would be one of the people who listened. I just remember it very vividly. I never spoke. I never even asked a question.”
Artists often took a liking to Vogel, not just because of his lack of pretense. He gravitated toward work that a wealthy collector might have considered too avant garde or arcane to purchase. Sculptor Tuttle once likened Vogel’s eye for art to the arm of a great baseball pitcher. “That’s why when he walks into an artist’s studio, the artist gives him his best drawing for nothing,” Tuttle said.
As the Vogels explained in a 2009 documentary, the couple chose to live on Dorothy’s salary as a librarian so that Vogel could spend his entire income acquiring the art that they both loved. “The only rules we had were that it had to be affordable, and we had to be able to fit it in our apartment,” she explained. By the time they stopped collecting new pieces in 2008, the couple had so much art that their actual living space was just 15 by 15 feet. (They did, however, save enough room for their eight cats and a few pet turtles.)
True to his everyman roots, Vogel — who reportedly disliked the stuffiness of museums — and his wife eventually were moved to donate their work to the National Gallery because it was accessible to ordinary folks like them. “They’ve never sold a painting,” Vogel said at the time. “And admission is free.”