If you had never heard of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, you could be forgiven for assuming that these were characters pulled from a movie script: a postman and librarian whose one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn surreptitiously housed one of the most celebrated art collections on earth sounds like something Charlie Kaufman would come up with. Their story, however, is a true one, and as such, a remarkable moment in American art history.
These two Jewish New Yorkers spent their lives in a frugal existence, slowly filling their diminutive home with nearly five thousand works of art by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Sol LeWitt, and Roy Lichtenstein, along with dozens of others. The story of these ‘proletarian art collectors’ is a touching reminder that art truly is meant for everyone. The blue chip art galleries of the world would have us believe that art is a rarefied commodity, reserved for the elite. Herb and Dorothy remind us that art is a human right, that art is for everyone, that art is integral to life.
Herbert Vogel was born in Harlem, New York, into a family of Russian Jewish immigrants. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Herb settled into a career sorting mail for the postal service, which he would go on to do until his retirement in 1979. Dorothy, née Hoffman, was born in Elmira, New York, and, after studying library science, moved to the city to work for Brooklyn Public Library, where she similarly remained for decades. The couple met in Elmira in 1961 and married just one year later. In fact, their relationship with modern art began in earnest around the same time as their romance; their first major acquisition was a ceramic sculpture by Pablo Picasso, which they purchased to celebrate their engagement.
In the years following their marriage, the Vogels paid their bills using Dorothy’s income from the library, while investing Herb’s entire salary to acquire art. They attended galleries and museums on a daily basis. As one contemporary art critic noted, “There was nothing that they didn’t see.” It is difficult to say whether it is in spite of or due to their modest socioeconomic standing and decommercialized views on art that the couple was able to amass such an important catalogue. What is certain is that, although Herb and Dorothy were famous as one of the largest purchasers of new art in New York, they did not view the work they purchased as financial investments. Instead, they only purchased art that they enjoyed and wanted to display in their own home. Another restriction on their selections was the size of the artwork. In true New York fashion, Herb and Dorothy never owned a car, so additions to their collection had to be compact enough to carry on the subway or in a cab.
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