Using Modest Means, the Vogels Build a Major Collection

updated 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By no stretch of the imagination are they Mellons or Saatchis or Thyssen-Bomemiszas, those glittering patrons whose very names can shake the world of art. They aren't within hailing distance of chic, and they have never, ever, been photographed boogying in Area. In fact, Herbert and Dorothy Vo-gel look and act like any mousy, middle-aged couple who have to watch their pennies. A librarian, Dorothy, 51, leaves her Manhattan apartment every morning at 7:45 and, dressed in a modest business suit, rattles off on the express train to answer reference calls at the Brooklyn Public Library. Herbie, 64, used to be a postal clerk in the City. Now he's retired and spends most of his day on the phone chatting with friends or bumming around art galleries in short-sleeve shirts.

But the Vogels' unassuming exterior camouflages a skill that is a kind of genius: They are inspired collectors of late-20th-century art. Working like moles, the Vogels have quietly amassed a first-class collection, most of it colorful, idiosyncratic minimalist and conceptual art. Against sizable odds, they have spotted talent before other, richer collectors, and have acquired their treasures on a shoestring budget. These days the Vogels are fawned over by museum curators and art dealers, who have even offered to adopt their pets, and are besieged by requests to lend their goods. Affable sorts, they are happy to oblige, so on Sept. 7 an exhibit of 105 of their drawings opens at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock (the show will later travel to the University of Alabama and Penn State). Next fall about 300 Vogel pieces will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum.

Over the years the Vogels have brought home 1,500 works by such now-acclaimed artists as Christo, Robert Mangold, Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse. They have never sold, and rarely swapped, a work. But Herbie and Dorothy didn't always collect art. In the early '60s they made it. They took adult ed classes at NYU at night and on weekends painted in a little studio downtown. Then, slowly, they began to take down their own stuff and put up works by others. Herbie (morosely): "I was terrible." Dorothy (cheerily): "Yes, I think so." Herbie: "I know it, but then I began to do something I was good at, collecting."

The Vogels have not proved as talented at storing. Because of limited funds—they live on Dorothy's salary and use Herbie's pension for art—they have simply transformed their one-bedroom flat into a warehouse. Dimly lit to protect the art, the place is, in a word, a mess. A thrilling, creative, pack-rat mess, the kind the Collier Brothers would have made if they had been art hounds. Everywhere are stacks of paintings, drawings and sculptures sealed in brown paper and bubble wrap. Heaps of books, magazines and newspapers litter the floor, and art has consumed the walls. It has even invaded the bathroom, where Dorothy, in a flight of fancy, painstakingly scribbled wall drawings. In the bedroom, a brightly colored latex sculpture by Lynda Benglis is stashed under the bed, while a finger painting by Charles Clough hangs by the door. "He is one of my most important artists who hasn't been discovered yet," says Herbie. The door itself has been painted silver on red and inscribed with the words Taking Place, Intend and However by the artist Robert Barry. On a near-by wall are Bluebird{a branch painted blue), by Richard Tuttle, and an oval piece studded with red, blue and black glass, by John Torreano.

Even their headboard holds treasures. A sculpture of mildew and dried yogurt, by Dieter Rot, sits next to a miniature crushed automobile, by John Chamberlain, which made an appearance in a 1971 Guggenheim show. "It was the first piece Dorothy and I bought together," says Herbie.

But there's more. The Vogels, who are childless, also share their quarters with seven cats—six Persian and one Abyssinian—named Whistler, car-Picasso, Tiffany, Corot, Manet, Renoir and Cézanne. The cats, who snooze where they can, have never damaged any of the valuables, but one of the Vogels' 20 turtles once left a splash mark on an Andy Warhol poster.

The Vogels' passion for art emerged fairly late in life. "When I was a kid," says Herbie, who grew up in New York City, "I didn't know anything about art. I was like any other kid." But in the late '50s Herbie began working night shifts at the post office so that he could try art classes during the day; he just got interested. Dorothy, who has a master's in librarianship from the University of Denver, didn't think twice about such things until she started going out with Herbie. They met in 1960 at a reunion of Poconos resort alums. On their first date they went out to dinner and a movie.

Today the Vogels don't have time to go to the movies. Besides regularly scouting the galleries, they have developed close friendships with many of the painters whose work they buy. "I knew the Vogels when you could still go in and walk around and sit down on a couch in their living room," says Robert Barry. "Most people who collect my work buy it like a commodity or yacht. Herbie and Dorothy make a kind of relationship with you." Painter Lucio Pozzi agrees. "To participate in their collection is a creative act," he says. As for the quality of their collection, Brooklyn Museum curator Charlotta Kotik says, "The Vogels are courageous. It is a very diversified, exciting group of work."

What makes them so good? Herbie and Dorothy themselves can't say, and anyway, they're in too deep to get out. "It has sort of taken over our lives," Dorothy admits matter-of-factly. "When you find something, you just know it. You say, 'I want it.' It's like a high. It's like falling in love."

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