Herb & Dorothy -- Film Review

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No doubt "humble" and "contemporary art scene" rarely inhabit the same sentence, but debuting filmmaker Megumi Sasaki's wonderful portrait of Herb and Dorothy Vogel summons these words.

The couple, who back in the 1960s entered the scene by patronizing then-unknown artists, came from humble backgrounds (Herb grew up on Manhattan's Lower East Side; Dorothy had modest beginnings in Elmira, N.Y.) and worked humble jobs (Herb sorted mail for the Postal Service, and Dorothy was a librarian). Both shared a passion for modern art, and using Dorothy's earnings to live on, the couple spent Herb's salary to build their collection.

But the Vogels were much more than mere buyers. They befriended, frequently visited and coddled struggling artists who often were living in the city's worst neighborhoods.

"Herb & Dorothy" works as a primer on the art of collecting. The benignly obsessed Vogels looked carefully at every piece and responded instinctively. They had fun, reveled in being surprised, and bargained humanely, often paying in installments. Most hilariously, the Vogels packed their one-bedroom rental with art literally running up the walls and across the ceilings and floors of every room. Piles of art, whether canvases, sculptures or mixed media, made for unbelievable clutter as purchases over four decades were shoehorned into their small space. Getting by with old furniture and appliances, the Vogels lived simply, even as the value of their collection grew to many millions.

The pair is likable because they are so sincere and clearly caring, not just of the art but of those in their world. They never sold a single piece and finally donated their huge collection (the more than 2,000 works filled multiple moving vans) to D.C.'s National Gallery of Art.

Sasaki gets everything right in the documentary and was further blessed with access to many artists and curators: Sol LeWitt, Richard Tuttle, Chuck Close, Robert Mangold and Lynda Benglis are but a few of the couple's fans who show up and "Vogelize."

A big audience-award winner at a number of festivals with potential to attract a sizable art house crowd, "Herb & Dorothy" informs about how to appreciate, if not understand, modern art. It also might be riding a new wave of films about old people; "Gotta Dance," "Up" and Music Box Films' upcoming "Cloud 9" are just a few that come to mind.

And talk about product placement: At film's end, after the collection finds its new home, Dorothy finally brings the low-tech Vogels into the 21st century by visiting a well-known Chelsea computer store and buying a spanking new Mac. In the "What a deal" tradition of the Vogels, Apple surely didn't have to drop even a dime for this movie plug.

Opens: Friday, June 5 (New York), Friday, July 10 (Los Angeles) (Arthouse Films)
Production: Muse Film and Television, ITVS
Director-producer: Megumi Sasaki
Executive producers: Karl Katz, Catherine Price
Directors of photography: Axel Baumann, Rafael de la Uz
Music: David Majzlin
Editor: Bernadine Colish
No rating, 87 minutes
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