The story could begin in 1961, when a postal service worker named Herbert Vogel and a librarian named Dorothy Hoffman together began a life of collecting, celebrating their engagement with a Pablo Picasso vase. Or it could begin in 2009, when a fraction of this collection arrived at Yale. But it really began in 1990, with New York City’s decision to replace windows in its city buildings. By this point, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel had already amassed a collection of over 2,500 artworks, delicate and important pieces that would be left vulnerable to the elements without windows in place.
The National Gallery of Art (NGA), with whom the Vogels had a relationship, arranged to move the works (filling five house-sized moving vans) from the Manhattan apartment to D.C. to be catalogued and archived. In the decade that followed, the couple doubled this collection to over 4,500 works. Recognizing that it couldn’t house the collection in its entirety, the NGA selected 1,100 pieces to add to its own collection. As for the remainder, the NGA, together with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, conceived of the Dorothy and Herbert Vogel Collection: Fifty Works for Fifty States. Also known as the Vogel 50×50, this plan divided the remainder of the collection into 50 groupings of 50 works each, disseminating one portion to an institution in each state.
Yale received Connecticut’s portion and was charged with exhibiting it in its entirety within five years. Six Yale students — two graduate students and four undergraduates — were chosen for the task through Yale’s student curation program. Guided by Molleen Theodore, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman fellow in the Education Department, they began to research the works, attempting to fit them inside the framework that would eventually become “Many Things Placed Here and There,” open now through Jan. 26, 2013.
“It’s thrilling, it’s really thrilling. The bar is very high, the expectations are very high. These exhibitions are not segregated in separate exhibition gallery,” said Pamela Franks, deputy director for collections and education.
Typically, the duration of a curatorial project ranges from two to five years, but because this show relied on a group of students, they worked within a time frame of approximately one year, meeting on Monday nights as a seminar course would, but receiving no course credit. The pressure of frequent deadlines combined with heated discussions surrounding decisions would lead to tense moments. “We definitely took longer than a normal curatorial process to make decisions,” said Light. “I think the biggest barrier was, yes, that we were all new and inexperienced, but also that we were in a group.”
While the personal story behind the collection spoke to the student curators, they ultimately agreed to highlight a different narrative. “There’s been a lot of sentimentalizing of the Vogels, and ‘How cute is this little old couple?’ You know, ‘meager funds but wealth of art,’ there’s all these taglines— and it just doesn’t get down to the objects,” said Light. “Because ultimately, the objects are what we have, they’re what we’re looking at and they tell a story all their own.”
The curators were now tasked with identifying and sharing the voices of the works, taking an approach that focused on the collection over the collectors. They also had a more practical role: to fold the gifted works into Yale’s existing collection, building up artist files on less researched additions and conducting an oral history project through artist interviews. In the end, the curators’ strategy merged these two goals.
“These works are embedded with the history and the memories of these collectors,” said Theodore. “They’re a fragment of this larger collection which now enters this collection of collections which is the Yale Art Gallery.” Even within Yale’s vast collection, the Vogel works stand out, due to their tendency towards intimate scale and references to the record of the creative act.
The show puts these aspects of the Vogel works into dialogue with Yale’s existing collection, a way of distinguishing the show from the 49 other 50×50 shows taking place across the country. The decision to include works from outside the core 50, from other collections and from Yale’s own, helps paint a fuller picture of the Vogels’ collecting practice. Searching for these points of intersection within Yale’s collection led to many interesting discoveries: for example, the curators selected a documentation drawing (a visual record kept for bookkeeping purposes) by the artist Robert Mangold for a work he sold to the Vogels. Though never intended for public display, the drawing is now on view in the show alongside other works by Mangold from Yale’s collection.
A focus on paper works led the Vogels to acquire pieces atypical of artists who were otherwise known for sculpture or painting. Nam June Paik, known for sculptural works featuring televisions, is represented in the Vogel collection by “Untitled, 1973,” a black field with a fine, wavering white line framing an inner rectangle evocative of a screen. In “Many Things,” the curators paired this work with a later one already in Yale’s collection— “Real Plant/Live Plant,” a closed-circuit video installation featuring a midcentury television casing and flasks holding flowers. The juxtaposition allows the viewer to see a medium less identifiable with the artist and trace the ideas found in his early work to the later, more elaborate video art piece.
Among the 50×50 institutions, these connections are unique to Yale, explained Bailey. “At other places, [the Vogel gift] doesn’t so much fit it, but it is their modern collection. For us it fills in.” The gift introduced some new artists to the gallery’s holdings, but primarily bolstered existing collections of artists’ work.
As it happened, Yale’s collection is able to “fill in” for the Vogel collection. Herbert Vogel had a close relationship with Sol LeWitt, the conceptual and minimal artist known for his wall drawings, speaking to him by phone nearly every Saturday. Yale owns the largest collection of LeWitt wall drawings in the world, but the Vogel collection that Yale received did not contain any works by the artist. Students borrowed works from the LeWitt collection and Yale’s collection — including one wall drawing — to represent the relationship between the collector and the artist. Theodore described the opportunity as “a total gift — the gallery receives this gorgeous donation and the director says, ‘Do your students want to use it?’”
Each of these additions were meant not only to link the Vogel gift to Yale’s existing holdings, but also to help visitors, many of them peers of the curators, view the works as the Vogels did — closely and intuitively. When Dorothy Vogel visited the YUAG to meet with the students, her single complaint was that the works in the galleries were hung too high for her to get as close as she liked. This invitation for intense examination characterizes the works and the mission of the show.
“The works they bought are intimate, both in the sense that they reward close examination and that they reflect the Vogels’ intimate relationship with many of the artists they collected,” said Bailey. “After all, they loved these pieces and lived with them in their home. It doesn’t get much more intimate than that.”
During early planning stages, the group considered installing a replica of the couple’s apartment in the show. In the end, the Vogels’ 450-square-foot, one-bedroom home is perhaps best represented by the title of the show — “Many Things Placed Here and There.” The name, taken from a Lawrence Weiner text piece installed by Dorothy in the Vogels’ bathroom, is placed to almost bracket the gallery. On the title wall by the entrance, the name of the show is flung “here and there” in bright yellow words across the panel. Then, the Weiner work itself closes the show, installed in large black vinyl letters on the back wall in full: “MANY THINGS PLACED HERE + THERE TO FORM A PLACE CAPABLE OF SHELTERING MANY OTHER THINGS PUT HERE + THERE.”
“The quote is just inextricably linked to accumulating, and accumulating things you love,” said Bailey, “This ongoing obsession, where you accumulate things in order to make a place for things — it’s very Vogel.” The text tells the story of the works as they were placed in the Vogels’ home and of how they came to be “placed here and there,” around the country and here at Yale.