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The Unlikely Medici : A Pair of Art Fans Assemble What May Be the 'Premier Collection' of Its Type


NEW YORK — Herb and Dorothy Vogel's one-bedroom Manhattan apartment is small, even by New York standards. The Vogels themselves are also small, each about five feet tall. It is almost impossible to imagine that they could have lived in a space that size along with 2,500 works of art, albeit small ones, and their eight cats, 19 fish and 20 turtles.

The Vogels are unlikely Medici. One trip to their apartment will confuse any visitor who associates collectors with Mercedes double-parked outside Christie's on Park Avenue. J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, dispelled any misimpressions last week when he announced that the Vogel collection would be entering the gallery's permanent collection, as a donation and purchase.

"This is perhaps the premier collection of modern and contemporary drawings in a field of 20th-Century art in which we were virtually barren--minimalism and conceptualism," Brown told an audience at the National Press Club last week, where he announced the donation.

"It's particularly remarkable," Brown added, "because the Vogels devoted their lives to this collection, at great personal sacrifice--he was on the salary of the Postal Service, she was a reference librarian in Brooklyn--and at great discomfort. They have befriended the artists, watched the trends, brought all this together as a collection as a work of art in itself."

At home, surrounded by their animals and by blank walls--the National Gallery has been taking inventory of their collection in Washington since September, 1990--Herbert and Dorothy Vogel's perspective on their collection was a bit less spectacular than Brown's, but perhaps more illuminating on the 30 years the Vogels have spent acquiring art.

"I wouldn't call it a sacrifice," said Herb, with a stentorian voice. The 69-year-old retired postal worker sat with his brown-and-cream-colored cat Renoir in his lap. Renoir stuck his tongue out at Whistler, Manet, and Degas, all cats who had gathered around.

The filters for the turtle and fish tanks gurgled loudly.

"We lived on my salary and we spent his on the art," said Dorothy, 56, who is the same height as her husband. "Now we live on my pension and we spend his on art. It really was no sacrifice because there was nothing else we really wanted to buy." The couple has never owned a car, she said. Herb's clashing plaid trouser and blazer looked well-worn. The clutter in the apartment is anything but minimalist.

Herb, the principal "animal person" of the couple, is also the one who initiated their interest in art after the two were married in 1962.

A postal clerk by day, Herb was a painter by avocation--"I worked in the abstract Expressionist style"--and on their honeymoon, he gave Dorothy her first art lesson in the National Gallery. Back in New York, both Vogels studied painting in the evenings ("She was better than I was," Herb said) and rented a studio where they painted after work. It wasn't long before one wall of their apartment was covered with her paintings. His were on another wall.

At the same time, they started buying art. The first work they acquired was "Crushed Car Piece" by John Chamberlain. The Vogels decline to say how much they paid for it, and will not discuss the prices of any pieces in their collection. Recent sales of work similar to theirs ranged from $5,000 to $35,000, although record sales have surpassed $250,000.

Just as the Vogels were starting to visit galleries, two new styles were emerging: pop art, which drew its imagery from consumer products, advertising, and the media, and minimalism, a pared-down, often-austere examination of monochromatic surfaces and essential forms.

Pop art, however, "had become expensive very quickly," said Dorothy, "because the American public responded to it. They could identify it; whereas the minimal art was not accepted, and therefore it was easily available and affordable, which is the key thing, since both of us were working. . . . We didn't have a lot of money then and we don't now, but minimal and conceptual work was much easier to buy. We liked it so we gravitated toward it."

By 1965, the Vogels had acquired their first works by Sol LeWitt, Donald Judd, and Robert Mangold, whom Herb Vogel described as struggling artists at the time. "They may not remember, but I do," he said.

The orderliness and clarity of Judd's work, Dorothy said, "appealed to my sense of aesthetics." Their first Mangold painting, a work in red, she said, "had a sense of color rare in minimalist work."

As they bought art by other artists--whom they also got to know in the days when, the Vogels say, galleries were more intimate and relaxed--slowly the Vogels' work came down from the walls and the work of other artists went up.

"One day we realized we had a collection," said Dorothy. "It happened unconsciously."

"I knew I wasn't any good as a painter," Herb said. "And rather than continue. . . . "

His wife interrupted. "We thought we'd be better at collecting than painting."

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