For those looking for an excuse to step away from the media obsession with Michael Jackson – and the Sarah Palin sideshow – here's a good chance to do just that: go see the irresistibly charming documentary about Herb and Dorothy Vogel, the most beloved American collectors of the last half-century, whose unique and inspiring life devoted to art collecting earned them a well-deserved reputation as cultural icons.
This film, playing only through Thursday at the Nuart Theater, introduces us to them as a young, recently married couple: Dorothy, who is a librarian, and Herb, a postal worker. Initially, she is not very interested in art, but he is knowledgeable and passionate about it, so on their honeymoon, he takes her to Washington to see the National Gallery of Art. In the first few years of marriage, both try their hand at painting, but ultimately abandon it for the all-consuming passion of collecting art, which – God bless their souls – they continue to do to this very day, almost five decades later.
When they began collecting in the 1960's, they smartly concentrated on Minimalist and Conceptual art, then relatively new artistic movements with a virtually nonexistent following among collectors; young artists were happy to have someone – anyone – show an interest in their work. What further set Dorothy and Herb apart was the modesty of their means; occupying the same small one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, they have lived all these years on Dorothy's salary while using Herb's for buying art.
Eventually their apartment became stuffed to the brim with thousands of paintings and drawings, and that's when the National Gallery stepped in, offering to catalog their huge collection. Seeing the hilarious footage of five long-haul trucks removing all the art accumulated in their apartment is absolutely priceless. Ultimately, the Vogels donated their multi-million-dollar collection to the National Gallery and for a short time enjoyed an apartment newly free of clutter, but it didn't last for long; they continued acquiring art, going to museums and galleries and talking to artists in their studios. If one would like to boil down their hard-won art collecting experience to a single lesson, it would be this: immerse yourself in the art scene as fully as possible and don't buy art that is easy to like; instead go for works which surprise, challenge, and even unsettle you, because there is a good chance you will never grow tired of them. And that's basically what I preach to students in my art collecting seminars, trying to help them avoid mistakes.
And here's another wonderful story of obsession with art: Séraphine, an exquisitely photographed French film based on the life of a self-taught painter making a living cleaning houses in a suburb of Paris at the turn of the century. For the first time in my life, I watched a film actor playing an artist with such authenticity that every scene showing Séraphine creating her paintings came across as a genuine act of creation. The filmmakers also made a very interesting choice to abolish warm tones from the print, instead emphasizing cool blues, greens, and grays in their homage to the French painters of the late 19th century such as Pissarro and Cezanne.
And speaking of France, check out the new show by American artist Nicole Cohen, whom you might remember from her imaginative exhibition Please Be Seated at the Getty Center a couple of years ago. Her new video installation at Shoshana Wayne Gallery, titled French Connection, layers images of elegant 18th century interiors identified with Marie Antoinette on top of scenes of rural Pennsylvania, which, believe it or not, was once considered a possible place of exile for the Queen and her court. As everyone knows, luck was not on her side. C'est la vie.
Herb & Dorothy
Plays through Thursday at the Nuart Theater
Now playing at the Regency Fairfax Cinemas and the Culver Plaza Theater
Nicole Cohen: French Connection
On view at Shoshana Wayne Gallery through September 5
Banner image: Herb and Dorothy Vogel