A couple of weeks ago I headed down to RISD’s Museum of Art to see “The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Rhode Island.” While writing this piece up, I learned Herb passed away on July 22, at the age of 89, after falling ill some months ago.
Which makes the exhibition that much more prescient. A postal clerk and librarian, the Vogels spent five decades befriending and collecting the work of dozens of artists, ultimately building one of the most significant troves of contemporary art in the world. (See the fantastic documentary about their life, Herb and Dorothy at the museum 8/16 or on Netflix.)
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel at The Clocktower with a drawing by Philip Pearlstein
behind them, 1975. Photo credit: Nathaniel Tileston. Courtesy Dorothy and
Herbert Vogel, New York, and the National Gallery of Art,
The Vogels’ intention was to live with the works, and they kept them all in their tiny Manhattan one-bedroom – on the walls, under the bed – until eventually, strained by increased attention on the collection, they decided to give some a new home. Rather than sell off the works, by then worth millions, they donated 1,100 to the National Gallery of Art, which helped devise a plan for much of the rest: “Fifty Works for Fifty States.” Together the Vogels and the museum, along with the NEA and the Institute for Museum and Library Services, selected one institution in each state – usually an educational one – and 50 works for it to receive. In Rhode Island, it was RISD.
Cozily installed in two smallish galleries, this exhibition of RISD’s 50 works, including knockouts by Edda Renouf, Lynda Benglis, Charles Clough, Nam June Paik, and Lucio Pozzi, is loosely organized into pleasing vignettes. In one corner an angular enamel on paper by Judy Rifka communes with a hanging corrugated plastic sculpture by Steve Keister and Joel Shapiro’s small-scale Model for Two Houses. Framed here, the Rifka was once taped to the back of the front door in the Vogels’ apartment. The Shapiro, standing just 11 inches high (and RISD’s first), was a sculpture scaled just right for their tiny space.
Works by Richard Tuttle, who the Vogels collected in depth (all 50 states got some), occupy an entire wall, and here we see the influence of Herb, who hand-picked these works from among much larger series, creating his own.
The Vogels worked very closely with the artists, “almost to the point of artistic collaboration,” says Alison Chang, a curatoral fellow in Prints, Drawings and Photographs. And the support they gave them – not just by buying their work but also by engaging with them, giving feedback, reassuring them – was crucial. “Artists said they supported them when they themselves weren’t sure their careers were going anywhere,” says Chang.
Herb and Dorothy were visionaries, appreciating and fostering conceptual and minimalist art before it took hold on the market. Which is partly why they were able to collect as much as they did.
Overall, the show is a celebration of one couple’s love of art – and an instruction manual for how to follow in their footsteps: befriend undiscovered artists, engage them, buy what speaks to you, tape it up, live with it, love it.