Remembering Herbert Vogel, The Postman Who Amassed One of America's Greatest Art Collections

Herb and Dorothy Vogel inside their Manhattan apartment
(Photo: Katsuyoshi Tanaka)

New York art collector Herbert Vogel, a long retired postal worker, died on July 22 at the age of 89, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of cutting-edge Minimal and Conceptual art, as well as his partner in collecting, Dorothy Vogel, who survives him.

The story of the Vogels is better reading than some fiction. They accomplished the stunning feat of amassing some 4,000 art works by artists ranging from John Chamberlain, Christo, and Chuck Close to Lynda Benglis, Sol LeWitt, and Richard Tuttle, all of it financed by the meager salaries and pensions of the two diminutive art lovers. The Vogels rank at the very top of world-class collectors, alongside the immensely wealthy Count Giuseppe Panza de Biumo of Varese, Italy, whose trove of masterworks from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the late Joseph Hirshhorn, the uranium magnate whose eponymous museum on the grassy mall of Washington, D.C. contains some 6,000 artworks.

Herbert Vogel, a Harlem-born high school dropout and World War II veteran who was better known as Herb to his legion of artist friends, never made much more than $20,000 a year for sorting mail on the night shift for the U.S. Postal Service. Yet that tiny income, along with Dorothy’s wages as a Brooklyn reference librarian, enabled the civil servant duo to live modestly in Manhattan while amassing a staggering trove of mostly small-scaled works on paper that ultimately engulfed their one-bedroom, turtle- and cat-friendly, rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side.

The couple’s spartan philosophy about collecting was fairly simple, ruled by their ability to transport the work of art from an artist's studio via subway or taxi to their apartment uptown. Unlike the current modus operandi of the ultra-rich art collector who relies on art consultants, auction houses, and global blue chip galleries to fashion their collection, the Vogels were decidedly old school, explorers of studios who charmed their way into the lives of then mostly under-known artists who would later become world-class stars, thanks in part to the couple’s visionary early support and unabashed enthusiasm.

For example, according to a yellowed Wall Street Journal front page story by Meg Cox about the couple in 1986, Herb Vogel acquired the only work sold from Sol LeWitt’s first solo in the city at the long shuttered Daniels Gallery in 1965, described as a “tall, gold T-shaped structure.” LeWitt’s friend Robert Mangold helped deliver the piece to the couple’s apartment. LeWitt, who became life-long friends with the Vogels, reportedly urged them to join him in acquiring the work of his friends. It was advice well taken. “Some people didn’t want to sell to him because he didn’t want to pay what they asked,” said LeWitt of Vogel, as quoted in the article, “I let Herb pay whatever he wanted, and he didn’t really abuse that.”

In 1992, after years of consideration and surprisingly business-like bargaining, the couple gave approximately 1,000 works in a partial gift/purchase arrangement to the National Gallery of Art in the city where they honeymooned in 1962 and first visited those stellar galleries. It was the first time the couple sold a work of art in some 30 years of collecting. Subsequently, the Vogels promised 275 more works to the NGA, so it’s not surprising that their names are now carved in marble as benefactors in the 6th Street lobby entranceway to the museum. Part of their motivation was based on the museum’s iron-clad policy forbidding any deaccesioning of art works and mandating free admission, not to mention their own romantic past in that city. If it’s possible to be proletarian art collectors, the Vogels may have invented the category.  

As crisply drawn in charcoal and carbon, “The Collectors,” the 1977 work by Will Barnet — another artist the couple pursued — convincingly portrays the head-and-shoulders profiles of Herb and Dorothy, looking hard at something beyond the picture plane. Herb is hunched over like a football tackle ready to play, while the bespectacled Dorothy, one hand gracefully pointed at her throat in trance-like concentration, captures the duo’s gift of looking and knowing. 

In their heyday, the couple would reportedly see some 25 shows a week. In 2008, just before Megumi Sasaki’s award-winning documentary “Herb & Dorothy” was completed, the Vogels, aided by the NGA, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, distributed 2,500 works from their remaining collection, with 50 works going to selected art institutions in each of the 50 states. The project became known as “Vogel 50 X 50.” Currently a number of works from the Vogel repository are on view at the NGA, including two wall drawings by LeWitt, sculptures by Benglis and Tuttle, a painting by Sylvia Plimack Mangold, and a Howardena Pindell collage.

Though the Vogels, one-time amateur painters who rented a Union Square studio before giving up that practice for the serious labor of collecting, eschewed high-end art commerce, they were close and astute observers of the scene. Their unmistakable and slightly rumpled presence back in the 1980s and ‘90s was always a treat at pre-contemporary art auction cocktail viewings, where Herb and Dorothy closely scrutinized the offerings. Of course, they would never consider buying anything at auction, unless it was a charity auction, and shunned the secondary market in general.

With his gruff, somewhat irascible New York City accent and jabbing mode of delivery, Herb Vogel represented the brasher counterbalance to Dorothy’s more diplomatic and well-spoken demeanor. During several astonishing visits to the couple’s apartment in the 1980s, in anticipation of a possible magazine profile, as well as several dinners at a nearby Chinese restaurant at which the couple habitually dined (when they weren’t eating boiled chicken or TV dinners at home), it became clear these were visionary collectors, the real deal, way beyond any light-weight bohemian caricature.

“Art is Herby’s only interest, except for animals,” Dorothy Vogel told NGA curator Ruth Fine in the essay “Building a Collection: Every Spare Moment of the Day,” on the occasion of the 1994 NGA exhibition “From Minimal to Conceptual Art: The Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection.” Dorothy added, “I paid the bills and Herby was the mad collector who bought the art.”