Robert Seydel: Contamination and assemblage

News Section, Reviews, Robert Seydel

November 5th, 2015


(Review) A Picture is Always a Book 


The Bits and Pieces of Robert Seydel


Originally published in Volume 5, Number 4


Collecting printed matter is inherently nostalgic. In The Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin says of the collector, “Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion.”1 As his recent posthumous exhibition at the Queens Museum demonstrated, artist and poet Robert Seydel (1960–2011) had a talent for collecting and assembling. Curators Peter Gizzi, Richard Kraft and Lisa Pearson described him as “an exceedingly solitary man who spent untold hours each day reading and studying, writing and making art.” His collection of books, photographed by Kraft, was vast, as was the range of sources for his collages—“debris from the street, forgotten photographs, and faded scraps of paper.”2 More peculiarly, Seydel’s collections, collages and journals were often done under assumed identities, such as the reclusive poet S. and the professor R. Welch.3

“The Eye in the Matter” focuses on the work of one particular invented alter-ego: Ruth Greissman, a fictionalized version of Seydel’s aunt. “Ruth” is an amateur artist living in Queens with her brother Saul, who is in love with the artist Joseph Cornell, also a resident of Queens. “Ruth’s pretty much a complete fabrication,” Seydel explained in an interview, “but she’s based on a set of supports that were real in my aunt’s life.”4 Like the images she makes, Ruth herself is assembled from found parts.

In the portrait Per Lighthouse (2008), a sepia photograph of a woman joins a bottle cap, the typed word “LIGHTHOUSE” and a fragment of a label reading “PER” in bold print. A variety of graphically charged labels and illustrations are united in Puccini’s Pudding (2007), where a cropped pudding label is pasted at the bottom of a composition that also includes a colorful cartoon of a locomotive moving between hills, perhaps from an advertisement or a children’s book, a black-and-white illustration of an eye, and some of Seydel’s stick-figure drawings. Pearson, who is also the publisher of Seydel’s books, has described the collages as “made of detritus, of things that have rusted or faded, things torn, smudged, bent, things that rarely capture our attention but here metamorphose into something alive and deeply connected to a life.”5 To dissect them into separate components is to strip them of the qualities with which Seydel—correction, Ruth— imbues them. Collage is a triumph over the dispersion that haunts Benjamin’s collector.


1. Walter Benjamin, “The Collector,” in The Arcades Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 211. 2. Peter Gizzi, Ricahrd Kraft, and Lisa Pearson, “Curator’s Statement,” in Robert Seydel: The Eye in the Matter (Queens: The Queens Museum), exhibition brochure, n.p. 3. “About Robert Seydel,” in A Picture is Always a Book: Further Writings from the Book of Ruth (Los Angeles: Siglio Press, 2014), n.p.4. Savina Velkova, “Making the Hand Obey Another’s Psychology,” in ibid., 101–102. 5. Lisa Pearson, “On the Art of Robert Seydel and the Construction of ‘Ruth,’ ” Siglio Press, 2007, accessed 21 Aug 2015,

Read the original as a PDF at ART IN PRINT