Herb and Dorothy

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


 

            They started in the ‘50s, collecting until they could barely move through the small apartment that had become a warren of clutter – art books, drawings, paintings, boxes. With absolute confidence in their judgment, these otherwise self-effacing people often bought drawings while befriending young artists and returning often to follow their progress. One artist, for example, had made drawings in a spiral notebook. Said Herb, “I want that one.” The artist replied that he didn’t want to tear one out of the notebook and the next scene shows him tearing all the drawings from the spiral as he and Herb rearranged them on the floor. “I still want this one,” says Herb.

            Director Sasaki, without any narration, has captured the essence of two people who know what they love when they see it by interspersing the art they found with the artists they met. (interviews with Lucio Pozzi, John Paoletti, Jack Cowart, Pat Steir, Richard Tuttle, Will Barnet, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, James Siena, Charles Richie, Jean Claude and Christo) “They have eyes that see straight from the painting to the soul.” Can you guess what they do in their spare time? They look at art books in the public library.

            It at this point in the film that we begin to suspect the monetary value of the collection. But remember, they bought only what they loved. They weren’t trying to be prescient. Their eyes went to the quality the world would one day value. When, more than 50 years later, Herb and Dorothy decided something had to be done, they met with the curator of Washington’s National Gallery, the only gallery in the U.S. that promises not to break up a collection. Five enormous moving vans carried every inch of the small apartment to Washington where Herb and Dorothy’s names are now carved in marble. They wanted no money, of course, so the gallery decided to give them a small annuity to help with the expenses of older age. What the trustees didn’t anticipate was that the pair would use that income to seek out more drawings for the gallery. Everything they have collected simply “passed through our hands back to the people.”

            How could these two quiet people have found each other in the first place? How could any couple share one passion equally? How could they live in the most acquisitive of American times without thinking once about money? Herb and Dorothy are known in the art world as icons of the appreciation of minimalist art. Asked what a drawing meant, Dorothy snapped, “it doesn’t have to mean anything.” They still live in the same apartment, still carry drawings home on the subway. Asked by a co-worker who had seen them on 60 minutes, “Herb, why didn’t you tell us what you were doing?” Herb replied, “I thought you’d think I was weird.” This wonderful film is a portrait of a marriage – a postal clerk and a librarian who enriched the American legacy.
 


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