Thursday, September 12, 2013

Herb & Dorothy 50x50: Minimalist Art for All

Herb and Dorothy Vogel might be the most significant American art collectors since Albert C. Barnes. Of course, the minimalist and conceptual art they collected was worlds removed from the Barnes Foundation’s early modern and impressionist masterpieces.  The Vogels also had very different ideas regarding the fate of their collection.  Through the National Gallery of Art, the Vogels launched an initiative to donate fifty works of art to a fitting museum in every state.  Filmmaker Megumi Sasaki revisits the Vogels, documenting their remarkable philanthropic undertaking in Herb & Dorothy 50x50 (trailer here), which opens this Friday at the IFC Center.

In her previous doc, Sasaki told the Vogels’ origin story.  Since the 1960’s, the Vogels lived off her librarian’s salary, using his postal worker’s pay to acquire their collection.  Early adopters of minimalism, the Vogels were the first collector of many cutting edge artists.  They only bought what they could afford and somehow fit in their one bedroom apartment.

Almost reaching 5,000 pieces in size, the Vogels eventually decided to bestow their collection upon the NGA, but given the obvious limitations of gallery space, they ultimately agreed to the Fifty Works for Fifty States project.  Representative Vogel Collections in miniature would be donated to regional museums that would otherwise be hard pressed to acquire such works.

As the Vogels’ NGA advisor points out, there is precedent for such a wide-ranging gift to the nation’s museums.  The old masters collection of five-and-dime store magnate Samuel H. Kress now resides in forty-one states, which is not the Vogels’ full fifty, but is still pretty impressive.

Much of Sasaki’s follow-up doc grants the Vogels their victory lap, traveling with them to openings in several states.  While these sequences can get a tad repetitive, it is intriguing to see how each museum engages with the work in their Vogel packages.  For instance, the Hawaiian pieces appear to have a particularly high degree of white space, which is a challenge for both curators and visitors, yet they have been notably industrious building programming around their collection.

Sadly, viewers also sense the realities of time and age for the Vogels that ultimately gives the film its narrative structure.  Somehow though, the tone never feels maudlin, paying tribute rather jerking tears.  Given the extent of the film dedicated to the Fifty for Fifty project, the appeal of Sasaki’s second Vogel doc might be largely limited to fans of the first.  Nonetheless, if viewers are interested, 50x50 is the only game in town, executed by Sasaki with scrupulous sensitivity and a good measure of style (quite so by documentary industry standards).  In fact, David Majzlin upbeat score propels the proceedings along rather nicely.

By following the Vogels, Sasaki gives the audience a pleasant tour of American fine art museums that are often overlooked because they happen to be in fly-over country.  She also effectively showcases the Vogel pieces, conveying the breadth and diversity of the collection.  One of the more emotionally satisfying art docs, Herb & Dorothy 50x50 is recommended for art connoisseurs and fans of the original Herb & Dorothy when it opens tomorrow (9/13) in New York at the IFC Center.