Meet Cindy Nemser - art critic, theatre critic, novelist, humorist, journalist, and ardent feminist.

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Thursday, July 09, 2009

7:24 PM Posted by Cindy Nemser No comments
As I promised, I will try to keep up the blog with accounts of events that might interest of hopefully provoke enlighten or at least entertain all those who care to take spend a little time with it. If you have a response to anything that I have written please send it to me via my email and I will post it. This is a forum.
A few Saturdays ago Chuck and I went to see the documentary about that now famous art collecting couple Dorothy and Herbie Vogel. The film which told their fascinating story was done in the honorable but rather ponderous style familiar to the viewers of public television. Sadly Herbie who was always the dominant one of the pair was subdued, barely saying a word, a shadow of the feisty man I knew in the 70’s and Dorothy, who had always remained in his shadow now talked a great deal in her serious librarian manner that paralleled the academic style favored by the selected artists, curators and critics who continued throughout the movie to laud the amazing collection the little Vogels had been to able to amass on their small salaries. The film was interesting though there was too much repetition on the part of the talking heads, but, for the most part, it lacked the humor and bite that the younger Herbie would have provided. Their characters were not developed. One came away not really knowing the Vogels as they really are or were those thirty odd years ago when I first met them.

The movie inspired me extract the story of my visit to the Vogels from my as yet unpublished memoir, that I am considering entitling Cockroaches and Queens. The phase is a quote from my interview with Eva Hesse in Art Talk. Eva told me that at times she felt either like a cockroach or a Queen. Her turn of speech grabbed me. I had felt like that many times in my life and some of the people I met in the art world could fall under either one or the other of these rubrics and sometimes both. Somehow the Vogels seemed to me, at the time, like rapacious little cockroaches eating up every piece of art they could snatch away from an artist for as little money as possible or for nothing at all if the artist was unknown. As you can guess my take on these little gnats who became giants is not as flattering as their solemn, but at times endearing, cinematic portrayal. But was there ever a collector who was really a nice guy? It doesn’t come with the greedy nature that will get what it wants no matter what or who it takes. After all, it is their ticket to posterity and only a great ego believes he or she is worthy to be known through the ages.

The Underground Collectors

It was during early 70’sl that period, when I still was ardently seeking to penetrate the establishment art world, that I had an amusing encounter with two other art world notables Herbie Vogel and his wife Dorothy, who I christened the underground collectors since they were not at all what one thinks of when the word collector comes to mind. For me, the word collector always conjured up some enormously rich personage in some elegant mansion or huge art filled Fifth Avenue apartment like the one owned by Robert and Ethel Scull, which I had once visited to review the famous portrait of Robert by the realist artist Al Leslie.
Herbie was a postal employee: short, squat, close-cut iron gray-haired, usually dressed in a worn brown leather jacket. Dorothy, tiny and mousy, with large horn-rimmed glasses, was a librarian. Moreover, they did not live in a Duplex on Park Avenue; their home was in nondescript rent controlled high-rise on Upper East Side where they occupied a tiny one-bedroom apartment.
Yet these were collectors if ever there were ones. Several people I knew including Jock Truman, the witty knowledgeable director of the Betty Parsons Gallery, told me of their unremitting zeal in tracking down the latest, most promising artists. They were avid in their eagerness to sniff out new discoveries, grab them before they entered a gallery, and buy their work in a small size (they could not afford nor store large pieces), before it was necessary to pay their galleries a commission. The desire to avoid paying more was, of course, part of their motivation, but even more challenging to this pair was the triumph of being the first to recognize new talent. Herbie adored racing from studio to studio, carefully sifting out the “winners,” second-guessing the curators, dealers, and rich collectors, the purveyors of art world taste. His greatest fear was that his selections would not end up in museums. Like most collectors who seek status through buying art, he worried that he would make the wrong choice and be stuck with a loser. So he agonized over every artwork that attracted him, checked and rechecked it, dragged his wife, who was enthusiastic, but sometimes appeared wilted, from studio to studio, gallery-to-gallery, museum opening to museum opening, determined not to miss a trick.
I was eager to meet the Vogels and eventually we were introduced. They were overjoyed to encounter a critic who was writing about their current art interest “Body Art,” and we quickly received an invitation to visit them at eight o’clock’ on a Saturday night. We, assuming it was a dinner invitation, brought a bottle of wine.
Their living room was startling. There were shelves and cabinets lining the walls of the room, and on every inch of free space were small pieces of sculpture: Sol LeWitts, Carl Andres, Robert Smithsons, Kenneth Snelsons, all the most approved of avant-garde artists. On the shelf space behind the sculptures, were paintings, drawing, and graphics by Richard Tuttle, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Ryan, Robert Mangold, and so on. Everything was lined up side by side. Works one above the other where the space was in small supply. In front of the art works was a nondescript sofa and some chairs all covered with plastic, and over the plastic were draped big pieces of cloth. I was left to wonder about the treatment of the furniture for only a moment for Herbie proudly informed us that he had five cats in the apartment at this time. Sure enough, next to the tangled wire of a Robert Lobe sculpture, in the middle of the small room, was a large scratching post for the cats.
I stood gawking like a tourist in the center of the room, hardly knowing where to look first, when my eye was momentarily caught by the large fish tank full of lizards, which my host informed me were prize members of their species. At that moment, one of the cats, an Abyssinian, haughtily strode toward me. Herbie informed us that the cats were also rare creatures. He asked if I minded if the cats jumped up on me. I had two cats of my own that were well behaved, so thinking he meant that the animals would sit on my lap when I sat down, I said it wouldn’t bother me. No sooner had I said uttered those words, when something leaped up, came plummeting at me like a rocket, and dug its claws into my shoulder. I began to shake, thinking I had stepped into some sort of bizarre fun house. My hosts apologized saying the cat was just trying to be friendly, but if I didn’t like it they would try to stop him from doing it. I laughed and said it was nothing, but every time the cat made a move that evening, I half jumped out of my seat.
I handed Dorothy the wine we had bought and she opened it then and there. I said, “Why don’t you open it when we have dinner.” She said nothing, but she looked horrified. I glanced out of the corner of my eye into the kitchen and realized nothing was on the stove or in the oven. Then I understood that we were not invited to dinner. I resigned myself to the cheese and frozen chicken liver she brought out for our nourishment, but I could see Chuck, who travels on his stomach, who had also caught on by this time, looking daggers at me over the wine.
I suggested Herbie and Dorothy give us a tour of their collection as the cats were making me very apprehensive by constantly jumping up and lunging at the chopped liver. The Vogels scolded them, but it didn’t help. All the time we were there, they behaved like a bunch of spoiled brats, knocking over the wine and stealing the food when Herbie wasn’t looking. He continually had to interrupt himself to yell at them, but they just ignored him.
I was anxious to get a detailed look at their whole collection so I willingly followed Dorothy around the living room. We stopped before each piece, but she only singled out the works that had been shown in a museum, and all she told me about them was the artist’s name and the name of the museum in which he had shown. Evidently if the artwork had not made it to a museum it wasn’t worthy of her mention.
Dorothy told us that she saved everything she got in the mail from an artist, because once a practitioner of conceptual art had sent her a picture postcard, and thinking that was all it was, she had thrown it out. It turned out to be one of his most vital artworks and she could have had it for nothing. She never forgave herself and vowed that she would never make the same mistake twice. Consequently her draws were packed with an incredible amount of waste material.
We went on to the bedroom. There instead of a throw rug at one side of the bed was a Lynda Benglis mat made of multi colored latex. I was surprised to see an artwork in such a precarious position. I asked Dorothy if it got damaged when she or Herbie, whoever slept on that side, got out of bed. “Oh no,” she looked at me aghast. They would never, never dream of stepping off that side of the bed. The other side was their way of life. I wondered if they had ever met Barbara and Eugene Schwartz collectors with a similar approach to the placement and treatment of their art.
When we finished the tour, the Vogels invited us into the kitchen for some Sara Lee Cheesecake. Then my host began to give me his views on different subjects. On cats: Herbie said he’d never remove his cat’s front claws even if they wrecked his apartment. On blacks and Puerto Ricans: they were making his life miserable at the post office and were a group of misbegotten people. On women’s lib: he was for it excepting that for either men or women the art had to be good. Our conversation went on and on, and every once in a while Herbie would stop short, look at us intently, and intone solemnly, “Listen carefully. I’m about to say something significant.” He would also stop after some remark I had made and give a critique of my statement to the effect that it was perceptive, insightful, quite penetrating, etc. I began to imagine that I was in a seminar being led by a benign, but slightly barmy professor.
At one point the conversation turned to extinct animals. I noted that the Vogels seemed to have more sympathy for animals than for people. I remarked that when people were miserable and hungry they didn’t care whether birds like the bald eagle became extinct or not. Dorothy and Herbie immediately declared that they were very much concerned about the bald eagle. Feeling a bit perverse, I egged them on. Well the dinosaurs became extinct.” Dorothy chimed in, “I’ve felt very bad about the dinosaurs too.” By then, I felt a little lightheaded. I wondered if it was because I had had no dinner, or if I was getting totally rattled by having a conversation with the Mad Hatter.
Chuck kept kicking me under the table. He eyes were telegraphing loudly, “I’m Hungry.” We finally made our adieus and the Vogels thanked us over and over for visiting them. We couldn’t have given them more pleasure. We told them we had a marvelous time and made our getaway.
Once outside my ravenous husband was furious beyond caring that we had met two extraordinary people. It was too late for China Town, so we had to go home and settle for toasted cheese sandwiches at 1:00 in the morning.

A few weeks ago, in the art s section of the New York Times, there was an article about how few plays by women playwrights are produced in both Broadway and in off Broadway theatres. The most disturbing part of the story was that it was women producers who dominate the off Broadway scene that were doing the rejecting. This piece of information may have been fresh news for the Times readership, but it was old news to me. In 1995, after I became deeply involved in writing theater reviews, articles and also in writing plays, I noted the dearth of women playwrights. I approached Ms. with the sexism that was running rampant in the theater world and asked if I could write an article about it. They thought it was a good idea so they commissioned me to do take it on.
First I contacted as many distinguished playwrights as I could. A few who had managed to make to Broadway were loath to make any statements. It reminded me of the early 70’s when women artists feared to acknowledge that being a woman artist might limit their chances to be taken seriously. They were playwrights, not women playwrights. Most were forthcoming about the discrimination they had experienced. The real shocker was for me, the haughty treatment I received from the women directors and assistant directors of the off Broadway venues: the Second Stage, Lincoln Center, the Manhattan Theater Company and the Second Stage to name the ones in New York. I remember walking along upper Broadway with tears of frustration staining my cheeks after leaving an interview with one dismissive female director. Even out of town regional theaters many run by women also had the same attitude. Gender had no part in selecting playwrights to produce. They only cared about quality. It would seem that they agreed with Bernie Jacobs who I also contacted—there just weren’t enough first rate women playwrights despite the fact that Wendy Wasserstein had received a Pulitzer Prize for the Heidi Chronicles and Suzanne Lori Parks and Cheryl West had received many distinguished awards. Jacobs just told his secretary tell me to contact Julia Miles, as she was the only one who concentrated on the work of women playwrights. He wouldn’t even come to the telephone. I was so disheartened. It was the 90’s and the theater world still had not caught up with the art world that at least allowed that there was prejudice toward women artists.
I spent a great deal of time on that article calling women playwrights and theatre directors all over the country, but for some reason the Ms editor did not care for my piece. After so much work I decided not to give up and to continue to try to get the word out about how shoddily women playwrights were being treated by both the men and the women in power. I was therefore very pleased when the editor of the Dramatist Guild Quarterly, the organ of the prestigious Dramatist Guild, home of the most distinguished playwrights (mainly men who made up its board and voting membership), accepted the article. Some lesser-known women playwrights with whom I connected even did a panel discussion there. Now I thought I might get somewhere by alerting the playwrights themselves as to the injustice taking place in their midst. I can’t believe, considering how much of a fight it took to get the art world powers that be—dealers, critics, curators and collectors to admit their sexist evaluation of women artists, how na├»ve I still was. And it was the early 90’s Susan Faludi’ s book about backlash had still not come out. Feminism was this F world, an evil word, a diminishing word, a word to be swept under the rug. We were in a post feminist world were those strident unattractive old feminists were an embarrassment.
Yet despite all this, I thought I had broken through the wall of silence surrounding the disparagement of women playwrights. Was I wrong! The editor, a young man, was the worst kind of editor with whom to work. He kept finding fault with every strong statement I made, but instead of telling me what he wanted me to say, he insisted that I guess what he had in mind for me to say. I did rewrite after rewrite thinking that any piece about discrimination toward women in the theater was better than none. In the end he had made me suck the juice out of the work to the point where all its zing was gone. At the time, there seemed to be no other vehicle for the article so I let him print it his way vowing never again to have anything to do with this sneaky male chauvinist.
When I article finally came out, it was place in the back of the magazine with no mention of it on the cover. It was so brief, so watered down that I could see it would make absolutely no impact. The Guild had thrown the women members the tiniest bone they could find and succeeded back then to silence them completely. I am glad to see the issue of the lack of women playwrights being produced on and off Broadway once again raised. Perhaps this time there will be more women in the theater world willing to fight harder to rectify all this existing gender prejudice.


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