Minimalism on overcrowded walls

The Story of Herb and Dorothy Vogel: How two New York civil servants assembled one of the most significant art collections in the country.

Dorothy and Herbert met in 1960, got married two years later, and settled in New York City. They developed an interest in art even before their wedding, creating their own artworks and spending time studying art history. However, they soon realized that their artistic ambitions outweighed their abilities, so they decided to focus exclusively on collecting. To celebrate their engagement, they acquired their first pieceā€”a ceramic vase by Pablo Picasso. Shortly after their wedding, they added another artwork to their collection: a small sculpture by John Chamberlain made from parts of wrecked cars. At that time, this type of art had little demand. The rise of pop art and abstract expressionism overshadowed their interest, as the works from these movements were priced beyond the Vogels’ reach.

Dorothy and Herbert made a clear agreement: the entirety of their income from working at the library would go towards art. With this in mind, they visited the New York studio of a then-emerging artist, Sol LeWitt, and became the proud owners of his very first sold artwork. Just as with Chamberlain, the Vogels successfully predicted the artist’s future success. Sol LeWitt later became one of the most prominent figures in minimalism and conceptual art, often regarded as one of its founders.

The Vogels enthusiastically continued building their collection. They dedicated their days to work and their evenings to visiting galleries and studios. They kept these two aspects of their lives so separate that their friends and colleagues had no idea that one of the most important collections of minimalist and conceptual art was being formed in their one-bedroom apartment.

Over time, the Vogels realized that their apartment, shared with eight cats, was becoming too small for their growing collection. They began meeting with curators and discussing possibilities for donating their artworks. In the 1990s, all 2,400 artworks were moved out of their apartment. The majority ended up in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., while the remaining pieces were distributed as part of the “50 x 50” project: one museum in each of the 50 U.S. states received 50 artworks. Although the Vogels could have easily become millionaires by selling their extraordinary collection, it was more important for them to share the artworks with as wide an audience as possible, just as the art had brought them joy.