How a Working-Class Couple Amassed a Priceless Art Collection

National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives
National Gallery of Art, Gallery Archives

By Jed Lipinski

Herb Vogel never earned more than $23,000 a year. Born and raised in Harlem, Vogel worked for the post office in Manhattan. He spent nearly 50 years living in a 450-square-foot one-bedroom apartment with his wife, Dorothy, a reference librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library. They lived frugally. They didn’t travel. They ate TV dinners. Aside from a menagerie of pets, Herb and Dorothy had just one indulgence: art. But their passion for collecting turned them into unlikely celebrities, working-class heroes in a world of Manhattan elites.

While their coworkers had no idea, the press noticed. The New York Times labeled the Vogels the “In Couple” of New York City. They counted minimalist masters Richard Tuttle and Donald Judd among their close friends. And in just four decades, they assembled one of the most important private art collections of the 20th century, stocking their tiny apartment floor-to-ceiling with Chuck Close sketches, paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, and sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy. Today, more than 1,000 of the works they purchased are housed in the National Gallery, a collection a curator there calls “literally priceless.” J. Carter Brown, the museum’s former director, referred to the collection as “a work of art in itself.”

The Vogels had no formal training in art collecting. They didn’t aspire to open a gallery or work in museums. They bought art the way any amateur collector shops: for the love of the individual pieces and the thrill of a good deal. But you don’t accumulate a priceless collection of anything by accident. Herb and Dorothy developed a methodical system for scouting, assessing, and purchasing art. When it came to mastering their hobby, the Vogels were self-trained professionals. This is how they did it.

The Art of Buying

Herbert Vogel was born in 1922, the son of a tailor and a homemaker. A rebellious teen, fond of jazz and zoot suits, he dropped out of high school because “I hated people telling me what to do,” he said. Instead, he worked in a cigar factory before doing a stint in the National Guard. When a dislocated shoulder resulted in a medical discharge, he enrolled in art history seminars at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where legendary art historians like Erwin Panofsky and Walter Friedlaender held court. In the evenings, Herb frequented the storied Cedar Tavern, listening in awe as artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline roared at each other over the meaning of abstract expressionism. He decided he wanted to be a painter. To subsidize his new passion, he landed a job at the post office, working the graveyard shift in the dead-letter department.

In November 1960, Herb, then 38, went to a dance at the Statler Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. Scanning the crowd, his eyes fell on a pretty, bookish young woman 13 years his junior. This was Dorothy Faye Hoffman, the daughter of a stationery merchant from Elmira, N.Y. Dorothy had moved to Brooklyn two years earlier, after receiving her master’s in library science at the University of Denver. Herb thought she looked “intelligent.” Dorothy found him “cuddly” and liked his dance moves. It was love at first sight.

Herb and Dorothy were married in 1962 and spent their honeymoon in Washington, D.C, where they made their inaugural voyage to the National Gallery. “That’s where Herb gave me my first art lesson,” Dorothy said. At the time, she knew next to nothing about art, having always preferred music and theater. But her husband’s enthusiasm inspired her. She enrolled with him in painting and drawing classes at NYU. That same year, they bought a small sculpture made from crushed car metal by the artist John Chamberlain. They had no idea that the joint purchase would be the first of thousands.

The Vogels rented a tiny studio in Union Square, painting there at night and on weekends and using the vibrant, abstract products to decorate their new apartment on 86th Street. But by the mid-1960s, the couple realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities. “I wasn’t bad,” Dorothy claimed, adding, “I didn’t like Herby’s paintings.” Herb, an unfailingly modest man, admitted as much: “I was a terrible painter.” They decided to concentrate on collecting instead.

At the time, Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism were in vogue and too expensive for the Vogels. Minimal and conceptual art, on the other hand, had yet to be embraced by the art world establishment. The Vogels made a pact: Her salary would go toward living expenses, his toward art. Under these new terms, they visited the SoHo studio of an obscure artist named Sol LeWitt and walked out with the first piece LeWitt ever sold: an untitled, golden, T-shaped structure. “He had more than average potential, and I felt it,” Herb said. LeWitt would later become a titan of contemporary American art.

But Herb and Dorothy’s obsession was just starting to kick in. The couple began visiting dozens of galleries and studios each week, becoming what artist Chuck Close called “the mascots of the art world.” In making purchases, they functioned as a team. Herb, the impulsive Dionysian, searched for art “like a truffle hound,” said the artist Lucio Pozzi, who has more than 400 works in the Vogel collection. Dorothy, the Apollonian librarian with the encyclopedic memory, was more passive, hanging back and calculating the financial realities. They had only a few criteria: The work had to be affordable; it had to fit in their apartment; and it had be transportable via taxi or subway. Not part of the equation? The artist’s reputation. “We bought what we liked,” Dorothy said. “Simple as that.” And they continued to lead their double life—racing from studio to studio to gallivant with artists and to scout their next big purchase every night, while keeping their passions private from their work colleagues. Still, assembling such an incredible collection on such a tiny budget required a few other tricks.

Work of Art

Many in the art world call the Vogels’ method cheating. That’s because the couple never dealt with galleries and art dealers. Instead, Herb and Dorothy negotiated with hungry artists directly, arriving at studios with cash in hand. Artist Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, remembered receiving a phone call from Herb back in 1971, when the creators of “The Gates” were still broke. “It’s the Vogels!” Jeanne-Claude cried to her dispirited husband and partner in art, Christo. “We’re going to pay the rent!” But the Vogels didn’t just take their cash to big-name artists; they were equally passionate about unknown talents, often helping them to develop. David Reed, now a famous conceptual artist, said the couple encouraged him to make more drawings, which later became a central part of his practice. “The Vogels made you aware of what you were doing as an artist,” he said. “They had artist sensibilities.” When they spotted something beyond their means, they’d find a way to make the purchase: They’d buy on credit; they’d forgo a vacation; they’d even throw in cat-sitting to sweeten a deal. And the artists loved them for it. As Chuck Close told Newsday, “You knew when you were selling them something it was becoming part of an important collection.”

It wasn’t long before the artwork overtook their home. By all accounts, the 450-square-foot apartment on East 86th Street was more of a storage facility than a place to live. The Vogels’ collection gradually replaced all their furniture save the kitchen table, some chairs, a bureau, and the bed, which concealed dozens of drawings by Richard Tuttle and Lynda Benglis. Visitors cracked their heads on clay Steve Keister sculptures hung from the ceiling and discovered typographic texts by Lawrence Weiner on the bathroom wall. And while they stashed the pieces wherever they could, Dorothy has repeatedly tried to squelch one persistent rumor: The Vogels never stored art in their oven.

Herbanddorothy.com/Fine Line Media Inc.

It wasn’t just the masterpieces that were crammed into the space; the Vogels shared their storehouse with 20 turtles, eight cats and an aquarium filled with exotic fish. To protect the artwork from kitten claws and rogue turtles, the couple boxed and wrapped the pieces not hung on the walls, further diminishing the available living space. “Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy once said. (Fittingly, they named their cats after artists, like Matisse, Renoir, and Manet.) When National Gallery curator Jack Cowart first saw their apartment, he was stunned. “It upset all of my alarm systems as a curator,” he said. “I began to think: What if there’s a fire? What if one of the mega-gallon fish tanks that Herb keeps his fish in springs a leak?”

By the mid-1970s, the Vogels were famous—at least in New York City. The Clocktower Gallery, run by Alanna Heiss, the founder of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, staged the first exhibition of the Vogels’ collection in April 1975. The opening coincided with a profile in New York magazine called “A New Art-World Legend: Good-by, Bob & Ethel; Hullo, Dorothy and Herb!” The title referred to Bob and Ethel Scull, a vulgar taxi magnate and his Vogue model wife. After a messy divorce, their entire collection of Pop Art and Abstract Expressionist was auctioned off for an eye-popping $10 million. The Vogels, by contrast, never sold a thing. “We could easily have become millionaires,” Herb told the Associated Press. “We could have sold things and lived in Nice and still had some left over. But we weren’t concerned about that aspect.”

Pozzi offered an alternate explanation. “To ask them to sell a piece of their collection would be like asking me to cut off a square yard of one of my paintings,” he said. “They were artists, and the collection was their work of art.”

Herb retired from the post office in 1979 and, naturally, used his pension to continue buying art. But the increasing size of the collection threatened to overwhelm the Vogels, like hoarders crushed to death by towering stacks of The New York Times. In the 1980s, they were forced to admit that their apartment could no longer contain their beloved art. They began meeting with curators and evaluating their options. They knew they wanted to donate their collection instead of selling it, and they liked the National Gallery, which is free to the public and maintains a policy against deaccessioning objects, meaning the collection would never be sold. In 1990, the year Dorothy retired, the Vogels followed through on their promise: Art handlers from the National Gallery transferred an astonishing 2,400 works from the Vogels’ tiny apartment, in a move that required five 40-foot trucks. In fact, unloading the works from the trucks and into the gallery tied up the museum’s freight elevators for weeks!

Realizing that the Vogels hadn’t invested for their future, Jack Cowart, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art at the time, paid the Vogels a small annuity in exchange for their generous donation. But instead of saving the money for medical expenses or splurging on a better retirement, the Vogels couldn’t help themselves: They immediately started collecting more art. The annuity helped the couple purchase another 1,500 or so items. As Dorothy put it: “If we wanted to make money, we would have invested it in the stock market.” This led the grateful if overburdened institution to create the Fifty Works for Fifty States program, in which 50 museums across America will receive 50 pieces from the Vogels’ collection.

In 2008, Herb and Dorothy, a documentary about the couple directed by Megumi Sasaki, was released to rave reviews. Sasaki, a former field producer for Japanese public television, had met the Vogels years before while filming a series about Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “I couldn’t believe it was a true story, that such people exist,” she recalled.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Herb’s health began to fail, that the Vogels ceased collecting. “It was something we did together, and when Herb was too ill to enjoy it, we stopped,” Dorothy said with typical matter-of-factness. Herb died in July 2012, at the age of 89. Dorothy's job now, she says, is to make sure people don’t forget the collection she and her husband built, which is considered not just the most impressive art collection to have been housed in a tiny apartment, but one of the most important art collections of the 20th century. “I have no regrets,” Dorothy said. “I’ve had a wonderful life. And I believe Herb and I were made to be together.”

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

7 of the World's Quirkiest Statues

The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
The Jolly Green Giant looms over Blue Earth, Minnesota.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Public sculpture can inspire, illuminate, and provoke curiosity. Look at the Lincoln Memorial or Auguste Rodin’s famed Thinker. But not all statues reach such lofty heights. Take a look at some monuments that stretch the boundaries of artistic expression.

1. Charles La Trobe // Melbourne, Australia

The Charles La Trobe statue in Melbourne, Australia is pictured
Charles La Trobe displays some inverted thinking.
Phil Lees, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Charles Joseph La Trobe was Victoria, Australia's first lieutenant governor, a post he held through 1854. La Trobe is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Royal Botanic Gardens, the State Library, and the Museum of Victoria to life. In 2004, sculptor Charles Robb debuted a sculpture of La Trobe at La Trobe University. The work is notable for being completely inverted, with La Trobe resting on his head. According to Robb, the point is that educational institutions should strive to turn ideas on their heads.

2. The Jolly Green Giant // Blue Earth, Minnesota

The Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota is pictured
The Green Giant statue offers 55 feet of vegetable advocacy.
Laurie Shaull, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s rare that food mascots receive a 55-foot tall tribute, but this monument to the Jolly Green Giant in Blue Earth, Minnesota, proves to be an exception. The Giant, of Green Giant vegetables fame, was unveiled in 1979 after a campaign by radio station owner Paul Hedberg, who wanted to lure travelers into the town. Curiously, Green Giant (the company) didn’t offer to fund this enormous and permanent advertisement, which was constructed using donations from area businesses. Hedberg wanted to install a button that would emit a “Ho, ho, ho!” sound, but ran out of money.

3. Man Hanging Out // Prague, Czech Republic

The 'Man Hanging Out' statue in Prague is pictured
Sigmund Freud is left dangling.
Greger Ravik, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Artist David Cerny thought he had the ideal way to depict the warring psychological state of Sigmund Freud, the famed psychoanalyst who was born in Freiburg (now Příbor, Czech Republic). Cerny said the statue, which debuted in 1996 and remains on display in Old Town Prague, is intended to depict Freud as he weighs his options between life and death—whether to hold on or to let go. At various times, police and first responders have mistaken the sculpture for a suicide attempt.

4. Transcendence // Portland, Oregon

Salmon sculpture in Portland Oregon
Transcendence depicts a large salmon breaking through a brick wall.
mike krzeszak, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk near Southwest Salmon Street in Portland and you won’t be able to miss Transcendence, a sculpture of a salmon that appears to be breaking directly through the building where Southpark Seafood is located. The 11-foot long bronze fish was created by Keith Jellum and seems to capture the irreverent mood that defines Portland.

5. The Fork // Springfield, Missouri

The giant fork sculpture in Springfield, Missouri is pictured
The attention-grabbing fork of Springfield, Missouri.

At 35 feet tall and weighing 11 tons, Springfield’s immense fork is among the world’s largest utensils. The fork was initially constructed for a restaurant by ad agency Noble and Associates in the 1990s. When the restaurant closed, it was relocated to the agency’s building, which is also home to the Food Channel. A fork in Creede, Colorado, is 5 feet longer but a mere 600 pounds.

6. Viaje Fantástico // Havana, Cuba

Sculpture of a naked lady on a chicken
Viaje Fantastico is one of the world's weirdest sculptures.

Those who gaze upon Viaje Fantástico in Havana—which consists of a naked woman riding a chicken and wielding a fork—will have to find its meaning for themselves. Located in the city’s Plaza Vieja, the sculpture was installed in 2012 by artist Roberto Fabelo, who has yet to provide context for the piece. Because the woman is nude, some have speculated it might be a nod to Cuba’s history of prostitution. The fork and chicken could symbolize that she has sold her body for sustenance. We may never know for sure.

7. Boll Weevil Monument // Enterprise, Alabama

The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama is pictured
The Boll Weevil Monument in Enterprise, Alabama.
Martin Lewison, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

This elegant ode to pestilence was erected in 1919 in honor of the boll weevil, an insect that destroyed cotton crops in the area. Why celebrate it? Farmers had to look to other crops like peanuts, which helped diversify the region’s agricultural economy. The statue, which is near the Depot Museum, is a replica of the original that was damaged by vandals in 1998.

Turn Your Favorite Photos Into Works of Art With Google’s Art App

Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch's "The Scream"
Edvard Munch, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If your local art museum is closed, a new app from Google Arts & Culture will make the photos in your camera roll worthy of gallery consideration. As Gizmodo reports, the Art Transfer feature uses artificial intelligence to reimagine any image you upload in the style of a famous artist.

If you've already downloaded Arts & Culture for Android or iOS, hit the camera icon at the bottom of the app and select Art Transfer. From here, you can either snap a photo or choose an existing picture saved on your phone. Google then gives you a variety of art styles to choose from. You can transform your cat into Edvard Munch's The Scream, for example, or turn your brunch pic from last month into a piece of Yayoi Kusama pop art.

The feature doesn't just apply filters; it uses machine learning to edit the colors, textures, and even shapes in the image you upload.

Dog image inspired by Man from Naples.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Pizza picture inspired by The Scream.
Michele Debczak/Mental Floss, Google Arts & Culture

Two years ago, Google Arts & Culture rolled out a similar feature that matched users' selfies to their art lookalikes. The difference with this one is that instead of showing you existing art, it creates an entirely new image by combining your photo with a famous artwork.

You can download Arts & Culture for free today from the App Store or Google Play. After having fun with the new feature, you can use the app to virtually explore landmarks, museums, and other cultural institutions from the comfort of your home.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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