In the Wolcott Gallery at the Fleming Museum, a few dozen works of contemporary art are on display in an exhibit with the intriguing name “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works for Fifty States.” For museumgoers who might pause at the word “contemporary,” be assured there are no mammals preserved in formaldehyde, à la Damien Hirst. There are, however, laminated photocopies of drawings; a small sculpture made from pieces of cardboard; a ball of steel cable; an abstract painting on Masonite; and a small, grayish canvas with, if one looks carefully, a single thread removed.
On the face of it, the exhibit is a microcosm of the major art movements of the 1960s through the 1990s — including minimalism, conceptualism and post-minimalism — which can often seem remote and inscrutable to those not trained in art history.
Yet there is warmth to this particular ensemble of contemporary art. As the catalog photographer, Lyle Peterzell, is quoted saying in an introductory essay, “[A]lthough these were serious works of art, they came from a free-spirited, calm and joyful place. It was hard not to feel good just being around them.”
That warmth is due to the people who chose the works, Dorothy and Herbert Vogel. From their marriage in 1962 until Herbert’s death last year, the New York City couple bought art they liked and admired from the young, radical artists of their time. They had limited means. She was a librarian in the Brooklyn Public Library system, he a mail clerk with the United States Postal Service. But, using his salary for art purchases while drawing on hers for living expenses, they eventually amassed more than 4700 works.
The collection crowded the Vogels’ tiny Upper East Side apartment long before reaching that number and, in the early 1990s, they began donating works to the National Gallery of Art. That venue, this civil-servant couple reasoned, charged no entry fee and didn’t sell donated works. But even the National Gallery couldn’t handle a donation of that size, so its curators worked with the Vogels to distribute 2500 of the works around the country by gifting 50 works to one museum in each state.
When Fleming director Janie Cohen heard about the Vogel project a few years ago, she recalls during a recent walk-through of the exhibit, “I called the National Gallery to say the Fleming would be thrilled to be the repository” of the Vermont gift. Particularly appealing to her was the prospect of strengthening the museum’s relatively thin permanent collection of post-1970s art.
Cohen was told that the decision had already been made, but the NGA would not reveal which Vermont museum had been chosen. A letter arrived two weeks later announcing Fleming as the recipient.
Which works the Fleming received was also out of Cohen’s control. Each state was gifted at least one work by each of six artists the Vogels collected in depth: Robert Barry, Charles Clough, Richard Francisco, Edda Renouf, Daryl Trivieri and Richard Tuttle. The Fleming got Renouf’s “Sound Piece I” — that minimalist canvas with one thread removed, whose “subtle movement” Cohen admires — and Francisco’s post-minimalist piece “End of the Day” made of tissue piece paper stretched over a frame of balsa wood. “Such a delicate piece,” comments the director.
Other works seem selected to display the broad range of objects that caught the Vogels’ eye. (Only half of the Vogel gift is currently on view. The rest, mostly works on paper, will replace, or be integrated into, a spring-semester exhibit.) One painting is flamboyantly figurative: a flower arrangement in oils by Lucio Pozzi on the entrance wall.
Cohen says she was particularly pleased to find a work by Dutch artist Carel Balth in the Vermont gift. “Line I,” from 1977, consists of four photographs depicting a beam of light on a portion of wall at four different times of day. Cohen is herself a Balth enthusiast: She included his work in a show she curated in Boston in 1989 on contemporary Dutch artists.
Two other works Cohen points out show Herbert and Dorothy’s differing tastes, which she describes as “whimsical” and “conceptually rigorous,” respectively. Though they decided on their purchases together, Herbert’s taste is evident in “Wall Pal,” a colorfully patterned abstract plaster face by Rodney Alan Greenblat. Dorothy preferred pieces such as Loren Calaway’s “Untitled (2 Parts),” which looks like two parts of a wooden desk hanging on the wall. The work seems to reference the decorative arts, Cohen points out, but any sense of familiarity it encourages is upended by the indecipherable schematics pasted in its cubbies.
“It’s not easy,” Cohen, a modern-art specialist, acknowledges of the exhibit.
What “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works” conveys most strongly, however, is not opacity but intimacy. The Vogels, she says, didn’t just browse galleries in their lifelong search for art. “They were very curious, went to studios, engaged the artists in depth about their work and in the process became friends with them.”
Many of the works in the Vogels’ collection were gifts from appreciative artists, including, at the Fleming, an adoption announcement in the form of a glazed white ceramic baby’s head from Michael Lucero and his wife, Cheryl Laemmle; and Laemmle’s birthday gift to the couple of one of the most striking images on paper in the ensemble: a sleek surrealist head with slit eyes.
The Vogels convey another message with their gift: One need be neither wealthy nor trained in art to appreciate and collect it. Though Herbert had taken some art-history classes at New York University and purchased a few pieces before marrying, Dorothy had no background in art. Together they developed their tastes, painting on weekends for three years until their interest in viewing and collecting took over.
Over time, says Cohen, “they became really educated. Looking is the most important thing. They trained their eyes and minds. And,” she adds, “their hearts.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Collecting Couple"
After a yearlong search, the Fleming has hired a new curator, Debora Wood, who arrived July 1. That was too late to have a hand in the fall-semester installation of “Dorothy and Herb Vogel: Fifty Works for Fifty States,” which was curated by director Janie Cohen and her assistant, UVM grad Mateus Teixeira.
But Wood’s timing and background are perfect for curating the spring exhibit, which will replace many of the paintings and sculptures now on display with works on paper. Wood, who comes to the Fleming from the Mary & Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, specializes in works on paper — prints, drawings and photographs — as well as modern and contemporary art.
Meeting recently with Seven Days in the small warren of offices beneath the museum, Wood has just come down from the storage floors, where the Fleming keeps most of its nearly 25,000-object collection. (By comparison, the Block has 5000 objects.) She’s been mining boxes of prints “to see what might spark an idea” for a future exhibit.
“I just came across a work by Cristoph Jamnitzer,” Wood reports excitedly, swiveling her chair around to pull up the image on her computer. The black-on-white print by the 16th-century German ornamental engraver — gifted by the Carnegies around the time the museum was built in 1931, she says — depicts dramatic swirls of creatures and leaves emerging from a vase.
Wood is just as intrigued by the “fantastical image” as she is by the fact that someone trimmed around its outline. Noting that similarly altered works were used as head adornments for parties, she declares, “I want to know why that was done and whether [the work] had an alternative purpose.”
While clearly a scholar, Wood is an unusual curator for having trained as an artist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts at Cornell University and a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in printmaking. During that last degree program, she also worked as a curatorial assistant at the university’s Chazen Museum. Wood’s interest in curating soon took precedence, and the last exhibition of her own work was in 2005.
Wood, who has also taught art at the University of Oklahoma, spent 13 years at the Block, the last nine as its senior curator. Having followed a career that has “alternated between teaching and working at university museums,” she deems the latter “the best way for me to exercise the myriad intellectual pursuits that interest me.”
These are truly diverse. Wood has curated a 2008 exhibition on computer-generated works on paper — she also wrote the catalog — and another on the architectural drawings of Marion Mahony Griffin (born 1871), the country’s first registered female architect and the one whose renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings helped make that architect’s name abroad. Other shows have focused on Robert Mapplethorpe, Kiki Smith and Roy Lichtenstein, to name a few.
Having settled with her family into their South Burlington home — Wood has two daughters, and extended family in New York and Vermont — the curator is already at work on her first project for the Fleming: an exhibit scheduled for fall 2014 on Kara Walker. The contemporary African American print artist is known for her often-provocative, black cut-out silhouettes, which are meant to question and confront issues of race, sexuality and identity.
Wood also plans to “approach the permanent collection with new eyes, making connections between artworks that haven’t been made before,” as she puts it. The last time the permanent collection was addressed in this way, she adds, was 10 years ago.
Wood’s affinity for university museums has another basis: her enthusiasm for working with students. “Art can be a fulcrum of a young student’s academic career,” she notes.
This interest may put her on a different path from her predecessors at the Fleming, who have gone on to curating in the public sector. Wood replaces Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, who was hired in 2008 and left four years later for the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio; her predecessor, Evelyn Hankins, left for a job at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s likely there are enough connections among the Fleming’s 25,000 works to keep Wood busy for a long time.