Abstract art is the kind of experience that challenges a viewer to find words to describe. Minimalism, the art movement based on simple forms, may pose the starkest of these challenges. No, it isn’t at all clear that any one artist, or art theorist, or art historian would feel compelled to tell anyone that words should be able to describe an artwork. Done right, art -in any form or era- may in fact be most successful when it allows the experiencer to get to someplace new. And this new place, by its very nature, wouldn’t have a narrative attached to it. But for me, the cognitivist, how might a conversation about the abstract happen?
Enter Herb and Dorothy Vogel. Describing this couple as unassuming would be an understatement. Married in the early 60s, they lived in a small, rent-controlled New York apartment crammed with art. It was everywhere in their home: above the shelves, below the bed, in the bathroom. They purchased art using Herb’s postal worker salary, which reportedly peaked in the low 20 thousands, and strategized by buying directly from artists and favoring trade and installment plans. By the early 70s, their collection had become so significant that it began to be shown in galleries in its own right. They became known as the preeminent collectors of abstract and minimalist art of their time.
In 1992, the Vogels transferred their entire collection of nearly 5000 works to the National Gallery of Art in D.C.. They selected NGA because it was a special place they had visited on their honeymoon and because it is a museum that continues to be free of charge to experience. Since that donation, many of their collected works have been spread across the United States, 50 pieces to one museum in each of the 50 states. Click here to find out where their works were received in your own state.
But what Herb and Dorothy accomplished is far, far more than a large collection built from frugal living and saavy spending: the collection provides a narrative on the abstract, specifically minimalist and conceptual art. At a time when such works of art hadn’t yet hit their stride (they were the first to buy a Sol Lewitt), the Vogels used their personal taste, relationships with artists, and priorities to amass a collection that then allowed such artistic approaches to be considered in their own category. Minimalist works and the artists that created them became recognized as having a unique and valuable voice, opinion, and perspective.
The creation of narrative– appropriate narrative, narrative that involves defining and not just characteristic features– requires experience with a large number of examples. Take any one novel stimulus and one might not be able to get it right in terms of its defining elements. Take a large number of different examples from the same group, and an individual can abstract the similarities to allow for some defining criteria for category inclusion to develop. The intangible become tangible. The abstract become discernible. From the Vogel’s collection alone, minimalist art could find a narrative.
Narratives are critical for cognitive processing; just ask my students. You see, in my classroom, there’s a few themes that run through the course of a semester. One of these is the role language plays in our cognition. Words describe experiences so they can be reported, discussed, reflected upon later. It’s challenging to think about what happens when words cannot describe something. This came up in my “Color Biographies” post– the idea of whether we can see colors that have no name. Even when we feel words cannot describe an experience, we dig around in our word arsenal to try to provide a decently appropriate linguistic capture of the contents of our mind.
It’s during this kind of discussion that I’ll ask students if they’ve ever experienced something that words could not describe. This is a bit of a funny ask because essentially they must use words to describe such an experience. And, over the years students have reported some real doozies: jumping out of plane, giving birth, seeing someone die. Or, this semester, a student worked to explain what it was like during the 10 seconds her heart was stopped in order to resolve a severe arrhythmia.
After talking about unverbalized experiences, I start in on creating new words and the words that are added to the dictionary each year. Words like selfie or mansplaining were in common use before being formally added to Merriam Webster. These kinds of terms arise out of necessity– lots of people having the same experience so a word is developed to capture the contents.
What are the terms of the abstract? They are terms that allow the precise experience of something not conceptually precise, of the sum being greater than the whole. Dorothy explains in an interview from 2013:
I think if you take the work …[that is] … difficult…people have to see it a few times to get into it. A lot of the work from the collection is like that: at first glance, it’s hard, but you see it again and again and again, and it grows on you. You have to take the time to reflect on it.
Thanks to the Vogel’s, the terms “minimalism” and “conceptual art” entered our lexicon. The narrative on what art is or can be was altered because of their eye, their voice, their collective work that now has national reach. If you have a chance, watch the documentary about their life or the follow-up film about their 50×50 initiative. Even better, head to the National Gallery (East Building) or to the museum in your state showing pieces from their collection (<– best idea).
Herb and Dorothy: Thank you!