Filmmakers tend to focus on the artist rather than the audience, and with good reason: The sight of an anguished artisan banging together a painting or a song or a film is infinitely more gripping than watching some plebian stare slack-jawed at another’s labor of love. And yet, what is art without an audience?
The documentary Herb & Dorothy showcases the Vogels, a pair of New York art-world gadflies who have, over the last ought decades, quietly, unassumedly amassed a museum-sized collection on their own dime. You wouldn’t hear about them had their haul not grown to—as of the doc’s completion—4,782 pieces.
Art admirers—even those who do not make art themselves—are as important as artists or art itself. Granted, that’s a bit of a projection from a passionate critic. Directed by journo Megumi Sasaki, Herb & Dorothy is more accurately a gently ruminative, blown-up special interest piece, mostly interested in the novelty of its mildly unusual subjects.
And what a novelty they are. Beneath the veneer of these stereotypically adorable New York seniors lies a largely impenetrable passion for minimalist and conceptual art, which they initially got into chiefly because they were the most affordable. Each piece is bought cash-in-hand, previously from Herb’s mail clerk salary. The only stipulation that is that it fits in their tiny, rent-controlled apartment, itself so cluttered it’s not clear what’s art and what’s furniture.
Are they critical? It’s not clear. Dorothy is lucid and eloquent and gabby, while Herb is pure enigma—cryptically, frustratingly mum. Sasaki’s camera pushes in and lingers over his face, searching in vain for a thought that materializes in a facial gesture or reaction or anything. The most you get from him is a quiet “That’s great.” You think he’s doddering until archival material shows he’s always been that way.
Artists, naturally, adore the couple and supply plenty of on-camera raves. Is the couple just flattering them or are they genuinely omnivorous in their tastes? Sasaki cravenly draws the line here, but he does a good job tackling the subject of modern art and, refreshingly, without feeling compelled to tiresomely explain its “significance” for those who can only stomach the Impressionist section of museums. (And he scores a killer quote from one who says, “Art is one of the things that allow people to understand their relationship to objects.”)
Herb & Dorothy is fine and good, but the deeper, franker view of the thorny art-artist-audience relationship will have to come later. B