Art Review

The Vogel Collection at Seattle Art Museum: “We Were Obsessed”

A New York postal worker and a librarian spent much of their income on the 20th-century’s most challenging art—50 works now belong to SAM.

By Sheila Farr March 19, 2013

Edda Renouf, Spring Echoes, oil pastel, ink with incised and scraped lines, 19 1/8 x 15 in. The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection.

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel were voracious about art. And not just any art, but the most rarified, austere, rigorous and intellectual stuff to come out of the 20th century. The New York postal worker and his librarian wife started collecting minimalist and conceptual art in the late 1960s, when few others would touch it, and over the decades crammed their one-bedroom apartment to the brim, stashing literally thousands of artworks. Five years ago the National Gallery of Art and the Vogels announced an extraordinary gift: 50 works of art from the Vogel’s vast compendium would be donated to museums in each of the 50 states. And that was after the National Gallery chose 1,000 pieces to remain there. It was an art bonanza. In Washington state, Seattle Art Museum was the recipient of the Vogel’s largesse, and now those works are on display at SAM for the first time, part of a new installation in the modern and contemporary galleries called The Minimalist Moment.

Many of the works are intimate revelations of idea and process. There are little jewels—Sol LeWitt’s tiny, pristine, synthetic resin panel sculpture, for one: a Rubik’s cube exercise in geometric construction with a surface like worn ivory—and jaw-droppers like Edda Renouf’s oil pastel and ink Spring Echoes, as exquisitely worked as woven silk. On the other hand, Richard Tuttle’s lineup of notebook paper watercolor drawings stand as quick one-offs—the artist’s equivalent of thinking out loud.   

Assembled by SAM’s modern and contemporary curator Catharina Manchanda, the show places the Vogel gift among the museum’s fine collection of related work, a fair share donated by the late beloved Seattle “artnik” Anne Gerber, whose taste, like the Vogels’, ran to the avant-garde. The show is cool and spare, a well-considered mix of familiar artists—Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Carl Andre—and historical referents (a set of index card ideas and photos from a 1969 conceptual SAM show masterminded by critic Lucy Lippard), and surprises from the Vogel acquisition. The works date from the late 1960s–’80s, a period when the prevailing winds rushed away from the emotive frenzy of abstract expressionism to probe the structural and ideological basis of art. Manchanda’s deep engagement with SAM’s collection stands out here, as well as her eye for elegant, intellectually bracing installations. There is much to admire.  

Will Barnet, Study for the Collectors “both”, 1977, pencil on vellum: 12 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection.

The Vogels have long been legendary figures in the art world. (Herbert, a high school dropout, died last year at 89.) Far from the high-flying stereotype of rich collectors, they lived on her salary and spent his paychecks on art, carrying their purchases home on the subway. A documentary about the couple, Herb and Dorothy, was released in 2008. See the show, see the movie, and you’ll come away with a feeling for what it’s like to give your life to art. As Herb once put it: “We were obsessed.”

The Vogel Collection: 50 Works for 50 States
Thru June 30, Seattle Art Museum, $12–$20

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