Robert Seydel’s visionary, genre-defying art and writing.
How are we to regard the artist who writes or the writer who makes art? There’s a venerable lineage of creative figures working both sides of the street: think of the poems of Marsden Hartley, the photographs of Eudora Welty, the collages of John Ashbery, among others. In almost all such cases, a hierarchy effortlessly falls into place; what’s primary and what’s ancillary are self-evident. Would we be much drawn to look at the watercolors of Elizabeth Bishop if we did not know her first as the poet who wrote “Roosters” and “One Art”? True aesthetic ambidexterity seems vanishingly rare, particularly among top-tier figures: a great artist’s side projects invariably seem secondary and marginal.
The work of the genuinely hybrid artist Robert Seydel (1960–2011) chips away at our biases about one art form always taking precedence over another. His texts and collages have mainly come to light only in the past four years, through the publication, by Siglio Press, of three handsome volumes devoted to his art and writing. These books are currently complemented by the exhibition “Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter,” which just finished a run at its second venue, the Queens Museum. Curated by Seydel’s friends the poet Peter Gizzi, Richard Kraft, and Lisa Pearson, the single-room exhibition is devoted mostly to work related to Seydel’s Book of Ruth and the posthumously published A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth and contains additional material never before seen. The show activates a chain of electric correspondences among Seydel’s works, so that his densely symbolic collages, his pseudonymous texts typed on fading sheets of fragile brown paper, and a sampling from his notebooks (which he called his “Knotbooks”) all invite us to trace patterns among them. Image and text are permeable elements of a larger vision, but neither can simply be translated into the other as illustration or caption.
That Seydel could think in arresting visual terms—as with the bold red-irised eyes that are the distinguishing and often only features of animal or human faces, or the mysterious stars and disc forms worked into so many of the collages and handmade texts—did not preclude him from adopting an equally literary approach, involving the use of several pseudonyms and elaborate narrative backstories to structure his projects. “I can remember saying to myself,” he recalled in an interview in 2010, “that my goal was to found a way to make visual art into a form of literature, with the kind of density I associated with my favorite writers.” Found a way: it’s possible that the interviewer has mistranscribed the more idiomatic phrase find a way, but I prefer to read Seydel’s remark as it’s given, as founding, which captures his ambition in merging visual and literary expression. Despite obvious influences—Cornell and Duchamp, and the later artists Ray Johnson and Tom Phillips, all acknowledged by Seydel, who declared through one of his pseudonyms, “Art begins in admiration”—Seydel established something novel and bracing through his multifarious art, summoning an expressive climate of melancholy and longing all its own and sporadically dispelling it with lyrical surges that can seem like bestowals of grace. The animal bounding into the nocturnal void of the collage Rare/Hare Leap suggests in a singular image something of the mysterious transformative energy announced in “Fish Poem,” written by the pseudonym “S.”:
I reveal me
in it, white
quick as the albatross
When it sings
I will be Fish!
Book of Ruth, Seydel’s magnum opus, is based on the life of his maternal aunt, Ruth Greisman, an amateur painter and bank employee who lived most of her life in a modest apartment with her brother Saul (often spelled “Sol”), a plumber and World War I veteran suffering from what we would now call PTSD. In Seydel’s brief preface to Book of Ruth, he assigns each of the siblings their own animal emblem, whose appearances are threaded throughout the book’s text and images: for Ruth, the hare, suggesting among its many possible meanings her curious suspension between the real and the imaginary, not quite “here” and not quite “there”; for Saul, the worm “or sometimes a star-shaped mole.” Seydel’s Ruth and Saul came to know fellow Queens resident Joseph Cornell and through him met Marcel Duchamp, and these two artists play supporting roles in the book; Ruth falls unrequitedly in love with Cornell (often just “JC” in Seydel’s parlance) and is imagined to have mailed him many of the art pieces that Seydel has fashioned as if from Ruth’s hand. There is also, the preface tells us, the furtive and shape-shifting presence of a “mostly invisible” fifth character: “‘Robt.,’ or Robert Cornell, Joseph Cornell’s homebound brother, or myself, nephew, and the ‘half-wit’ of the Book.”
Made up of work completed between 2000 and 2010, Book of Ruth is one of the great avant-garde novels of the twenty-first century, all the more so because it can’t really be read as a story: Ruth’s tale—told from her point of view but, according to Seydel, “pretty much a complete fabrication”—can only be experienced through a network of associations and suggestive signposts that emerges in the collages and journal-entry poems that Seydel has ventriloquized for her and in the gnomic dicta of “Formulas & Flowers,” a collection of aphorisms at the center of the book. In these brief pronouncements, the voices of creator and alter ego are fully fused, as if in a photograph made from two superimposed negatives:
It’s the windows are white
even every day.
What we manage is what is.
Whatever has a wheel / is real.
Sol is not the sun.
My name is magnified at the margin of the page.
I was given the word Rue, Ruah, Ruth, Wroth.
In the desert I carry a parasol like a wheel.
Every scrap is drawn to every picture.
Art has a hole in it the size of Queens.
A picture always wants to be something else.
We might imagine Seydel to have taken his cue from his hero William Blake’s directive to see a world in a grain of sand: an entire aesthetic philosophy, even an existential way of being, is presented through the filter of the freely imagined consciousness of a restless Jewish spinster from the last century, a kind of anti–Leopold Bloom whose outward life is as unremarkable as the workaday Queens where she passes her days.
Several glimpses into Seydel’s notebooks offered in the exhibition help to lift the masks from an artist wholly dedicated to his personae. Part commonplace book drawn from Seydel’s voluminous reading, part staging ground to work out his ideas, the notebooks also deepen a sense, already evident in the work itself, that the voices and personalities he inhabits—above all, Ruth—have been channeled so fully that they have taken on an independent life, even from their creator. At times he hovers over his avatars as if observing them under glass. Reading Bashō, he copies out a few quotes from the Japanese poet, then speculates that many of Ruth’s writings “may be related to Japanese prose-+-poem forms” and proceeds to draw a pictographic illustration of two stick-figure mountain climbers, one near and one far, and places in the sky above them a spiral with a poem superimposed on it: “Ruth hobokan / stay-at-home / wandering poet / Japanese in her / lonely art.” The provisional nature of Seydel’s remark about Japanese forms suggests that even as Ruth is fully his own conception, and quite distinct from the actual person his aunt had been, she exists autonomously and can surprise and delight her creator.
Most of Ruth’s journal-poems and diary entries were composed on individual pieces of paper. In Book of Ruth and A Picture Is Always a Book, these pages are presented in facsimile, as artworks rather than texts; they are discrete objects just as much as the collages are. In the exhibition, framed and interspersed among the collages, their thingness is even more insistent. The texts have all been pecked out on a typewriter in blue or black characters, with the occasional word or phrase given in red, and are filled with blacked- or whited-out corrections. Intentional misspellings abound. Adorned with brightly colored orbs and stars, doodle-like figure drawings, and other colored-pencil illustrations whose imagery calls to mind the enigmas of Surrealist art or prehistoric cave paintings, the text pages come across as precarious two-dimensional contraptions, mappings of mind and emotion that assume an order and a shape but won’t quite hold still. They, too, are assemblages of a sort—drawing not so much from the cut-and-paste mode of modernist collage as from outsider art, with its unselfconscious juxtapositions and fanciful embellishments.
One in fact senses that, through his alter egos, Seydel was attempting to build his own outpost of outsider art, or at least of an art inimical to what’s favored in the “corridors of power,” as he phrased it. Even the canonical influences he continually draws upon—Blake and Emily Dickinson above all (“Ruth is Emily,” he wrote in one of his notebooks)—tend to be artists who were marginal figures while they lived and worked and who still retain some core otherness, some radical kernel that remains unassimilable and jarringly their own, even as they are widely appreciated and admired. Sunday painter Ruth is meant to join this visionary company through an affinity of orientation, if not necessarily of achievement. “I remain in practically all things a beginner,” Ruth confesses in “Formulas & Flowers.” “I’m naïve in my navy pants.” One of the uncanny successes of Seydel’s art lies in the way his sophistication and erudition are everywhere in evidence (albeit submerged), and yet he could fashion through his pseudonyms a body of work that harnesses, without ever seeming precious or contrived, the affecting strangeness and elemental power of naive art.
James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America. His essays and reviews have been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, Raritan, Chicago Review, and other publications.