Art keeps couples together, or so two recent documentaries suggest. In “Cutie and the Boxer,” in a Manhattan apartment crammed with artwork, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, husband-and-wife artists, celebrate the former’s 80th birthday. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, in another apartment crammed with artwork, collectors Herb and Dorothy Vogel plan what to do with their trove of contemporary masterpieces in “Herb & Dorothy 50x50.”
Megumi Sasaki’s documentary about the Vogels, a sequel to his “Herb & Dorothy” (2009), follows its subjects after they have decided to break up their collection and distribute it across the country, bequeathing 50 pieces to an institution in each of the 50 states. (In Massachusetts, the recipient was Harvard Art Museums.) The resultant film, understandably, is all over the map, a ramble to unlikely art outposts intercut with reflections from the Vogels and their favorite artists. But in the course of this peripatetic tour, the film poses questions such as: What is art? Why is it important? And how can it survive in an age that doesn’t seem to care?
As shown in the 2009 film, Herb, a postal worker, and Dorothy, a librarian, are not your typical collectors. Back in the ’60s they decided to invest Herb’s salary in artworks, their only guidelines being to buy what they could afford and what fit in their home. They chose a good time to start, because the minimalist, conceptual, and other cutting-edge works that Herb favored had not yet become a hot commodity. So they were able to get a head start on such artists as Sol LeWitt and Chuck Close, as well as picking up the occasional Pollock and Picasso.
But as both grew older and Herb became infirm, they decided to share their treasure with the public, first donating the collection to the National Gallery in D.C. When the number of pieces, 5,000 and growing, proved too much for the museum to handle, they established the 50x50 project. And so items such as Richard Tuttle’s watercolor blobs on notebook paper and Robert Barry’s random words on a wall are pondered by skeptical viewers in Montana, Hawaii, and Delaware. Some are intrigued, others say, inevitably, “My kid could do that.” The most appreciative are children, perhaps because they recognize that, as a matter of fact, they can do that.
Meanwhile, back in New York, Dorothy follows 50x50’s progress online. The project has its own website (www.vogel5050.org), and, as each piece is put in place, a picture of it replaces a blank image. Examining a blue square, she asks, “Is that nothing?” An assistant says, “No, that’s art.” Maybe that fine line is the key to love and art both.