Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In HERB AND DOROTHY: 50x50 -- Megumi Sasaki returns to her groundbreaking art documentary


The thing that made the original documentary Herb and Dorothy such a treat -- other than that title pair of fine art collectors who made the original film possible -- was that, for TrustMovies at least, this film, its collectors and their art opened the door to a better understanding of minimalist/conceptual art and what it can achieve. In her new film, HERB AND DOROTHY: 50x50, documentarian Megumi Sasaki continues the story of the pair of collectors and what happens to their fabled collection, certainly one of if not the richest in the field of minimalist art.

At the end of the original film (spoiler just ahead for those of you who have not seen it), Herb and Dorothy Vogel's collection was placed, with their blessing, in the hands of the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. In her new doc, Ms Sasaki, shown at left, lets us immediately know that things have changed since 2008, when that first film was released. The National Gallery, along with the charming and most helpful curator, Diane Fine, has realized that the gallery will never be able to show nearly all of the Vogels' collection, so that, to have it properly viewed, another plan of action is required. That plan jumps off from one used much earlier by the Kress collection (art collected by dime-store mogul Samuel H. Kress), which was divided up so that portions of the collection could be shown at various institutions across the country.

The result for the Vogels (the couple is shown above in the early days of their collecting, and below around the time, or maybe a bit before, the original film was made), is that their mammoth, over-4,000-piece-collection is being shared -- 50 pieces to each of our 50 states -- which gives the film its subtitle). This of course takes a lot of planning and various configurations, and along the way we discover what happens when one of the institutions thus gifted suddenly goes bankrupt (this occurs in Las Vegas, where else?).

Aside from the art and what happens to it, the thing that will immediately grab most viewers upon seeing this sequel, is how much and how badly Herb Vogel, below, has deteriorated over a five-year period. He used to be a lot more talkative; now he seems to have clammed up. Well into his mid-to-late 80s, he still exhibits an occasional flash of dry wit.

Dorothy (above), 13 years Herb's junior, is also somewhat bent with age, but keeps things going via computer and travel to the various openings of their 50x50 exhibits. As in the earlier film, we again see a number of the artists whose work the Vogels collected, and hear what this has meant to them and their careers. (I think that's Richard Tuttle, below, with H & D).

For those folk who question the legitimacy of minimalist or conceptual art, the movie offers an occasional ah-hah! moment: the section on the art world's favorite Con Artist, Mark Kostabi, is one such. Even better is the scene in which Dorothy is checking to see if all the art work has been posted on a particular museum's web site, and she comes across something confusing: "Is that an empty box?" she asks. "No," comes the reply, "I think that's art."

Still, as Stephan Jost, Director, Honolulu Museum of Art, insists, one of the prime reasons for art is to provoke cul-tural change. "At their best," Jost tells us, "the works in this collection do provoke this change." The fact that it took two New York City civil servants -- he a postal worker, she a librarian -- to all by them-selves, with only their love of art and personal taste to guide them (and only one of their very middle-class salaries to do the purchasing!), put together an amazing collection like this, is the real and important point. Their story puts to shame (as so much else these days does, too) our wealthy and entitled class.

If this new film packs nowhere near the information or punch of the earlier one, we should not be surprised, as the major part of the story has already been told -- and very well. 50x50 is a kind of addendum, but it's one that all those who loved the original film will want to see.

Herb and Dorothy: 50x50 -- from Fine Line Media and running 87 minutes -- opens this Friday, September 13th, in New York at the IFC Center. The film will then expand with a platform theatrical release to San Francisco, Berkley and Portland (OR) on 9/20, to the Los Angeles area on 9/27 and to the balance of the top 10 markets throughout October, before taking on additional markets nationwide. For a look at the complete list of playdates, cities and theaters, just click here.

2 comments:

Herb & Dorothy 50X50 said...

Thank you for this thorough and thoughtful post about our film! We're honored.

James van Maanen said...

And thank you for that nice comment! I'm sure there will be more good reviews, come your opening this Friday.