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Piece by Piece: Building the Vogel Collection

Art collectors Herbert and Dorothy Vogel didn’t let their modest income deter their passion for purchasing art. Works from their remarkable collection are on view now at the Blanton Museum of Art.

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Over the past 50 years, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel have amassed an art collection consisting of thousands of works, many by key figures in minimal, post-minimal and conceptual art. The scope of their collection is even more remarkable, however, because of the Vogels’ unique approach to collecting: small-scale and on a budget.

Setting aside Dorothy’s librarian salary for living expenses, the Vogels devoted the entirety of Herb’s income as a postal worker to purchasing art. The couple kept all of the artwork in their one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment in New York City until they transferred over 2,400 works of art (in five full-size moving trucks) to the National Gallery of Art in 1990. More than 1,000 works followed in subsequent years.

As part of a national gift program, in which 50 works from the Vogel collection were given to one museum in each of the 50 U.S. states, the Blanton Museum of Art at The University of Texas at Austin was chosen by the Vogels and the National Gallery of Art as the Texas recipient.

Artist Richard Tuttle

Artist Richard Tuttle’s “Dallas (9 pencil lines)” is also included in “The Collecting Impulse.” The Vogels own the largest collection of Tuttle’s work in the world. 

The selection will be exhibited in a presentation titled “The Collecting Impulse: Fifty Works from Dorothy and Herbert Vogel,” on view at the museum through Aug. 12.

The Vogels’ deeply personal approach to collecting and their preference for acquiring challenging artworks made Dorothy and Herb singular figures in the art world long before they decided to donate the vast majority of their collection to public institutions nationwide.

When Dorothy and Herb bought a small John Chamberlain sculpture shortly after they were married in 1962, they did not intend to become collectors.

“We didn’t call it a collection until other people did,” Dorothy said in an exhibition catalog interview. “People started asking to come over and see ‘the collection,’ and that’s when we realized that it existed.”

Dorothy and Herb were important early supporters of minimal and conceptual art, providing encouragement and, in the case of Sol LeWitt, first sales to artists whose intellectually rigorous work initially received little support from the American art market. Minimalism often emphasized simple, geometric forms created from industrial materials and devoid of expression, while conceptual art positioned the artist’s actions or thoughts as artworks without requiring the production of a tangible work of art.

“Most of the things we have we bought because we didn’t understand them we like them,” Herb said in an exhibition catalog interview. “A real work of art you never entirely understand, and anyway, if I had waited until I thought I understood, I’d never have bought anything.”

Many of the artists in the collection, including LeWitt, Lynda Benglis and Richard Tuttle, went on to successful careers. But the Vogels have always prioritized personal relationships with artists and their own engagement with the work over the investment potential of their acquisitions.

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel have built a large and remarkable art collection with Herb

Dorothy and Herbert Vogel have built a large and remarkable art collection with Herb’s modest income. The Blanton received 50 works from the Vogel’s collection as part of a national gift program. 

The Vogels have enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Tuttle since 1969, and they own the largest collection of his work in the world. Tuttle’s drawing-based practice, emphasizing deceptively simple and ephemeral forms, is represented in the Vogels’ gift to The Blanton by a suite of 14 individual drawings and two sets of drawings on loose-leaf paper, including several preparatory sketches for site-specific wall drawings in the artist’s 1971 mid-career retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art.

The collectors’ admiration for Tuttle is wholeheartedly returned: “Most of us go through the world never seeing anything,” Tuttle said in “Herb and Dorothy” a 2009 documentary about the couple. “Then you meet somebody like Herb and Dorothy, who have eyes that see. Something goes from the eye to the soul without going through the brain.”

In conjunction with “The Collecting Impulse” exhibition, Mary Lee Corlett of the National Gallery of Art will speak at The Blanton about the Vogel collection on June 21, and the museum will screen the award-winning documentary “Herb and Dorothy” at the museum on July 19.

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Claire Howard is The Blanton’s curatorial administrative assistant. She recently received her master’s in art history from the University of Texas at Austin. This story originally appeared in the e-magazine Aether and on The Blanton Blog.