Robert Seydel: Material bearing witness to imagination

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November 6th, 2015


(Review) A Picture is Always a Book by Robert Seydel 


Finally Collage: The Hybrid Texts and Art of Robert Seydel


Originally published September 20, 2015


“To wear masks put them off,” writes Ruth Greisman, alter-ego of the late artist and writer Robert Seydel. Though based on and named after Seydel’s real-life aunt, Ruth is largely a fictional construct. An aging bank teller and Hadassah member, she lived with Sol, her WWI-shell-shocked plumber brother, in an apartment in Queens, not far from the Utopia Parkway home of Joseph Cornell. Ruth makes collages and type-written poems that she mails to Cornell, apocryphally “discovered” amidst his archive. Cornell’s presence haunts this work, both as its intended reader and as a significant artistic influence; his junk-store-on-the-edge-of-eternity aesthetic abounds.

These collages and type-written poems are exhibited alongside Seydel’s journals in Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter at the Queens Museum. Sentences from “Formulas & Flowers,” a long poem of aphoristic declarations, observations, and non-sequiturs, line the gallery walls at about the twelve-foot mark. Beneath them hang Ruth’s collages, and in the middle of the room two glass vitrines house typewritten journal-poems and notebooks.

All of the work is “scaled intimate and to the hand,” humble and dexterous, the work of an artist whose hope was “to write an art […] and have it be as well a poor art, assembled from scraps.” Ruth’s pages present themselves as tiny windows into an unreal time — embodiments of the mysterious yet richly allusive space of reading.

The collages are simple constructions largely made from old black and white photos, white-out smears, newsprint, scraps of paper and wrappers, aluminum foil, and bottle caps. They’re lovingly composed, often using a recurring set of emblems (star, rabbit, mole), junk-store dross, and absurdist slogans to play with traditional tropes of portraiture. As one drifts from collage to collage (each framed in an expanse of white space, the better to draw one’s eyes into a readerly engagement), an unfixed visual narrative emerges from material and stylistic repetition: blobby red circles look out from the sail of a schooner or compose the “o’s” in the word “moo,” which hangs above a comic elephant in an idyllic Providence garden; a portrait head is occluded by a flattened bottle cap or the face of a rabbit or Hindu deity. Every circle becomes an eye, and every face another’s face. Material is made to bear witness to imagination.

While constituting a stylistic departure from most of the collages, “Rare/Hare Leap,” a 7.5×4.5-inch assemblage, is perhaps the most succinct distillation of the longing that I find so compelling in this work. In it, Ruth’s familiar, the hare, construed from what seems to be the shaved down interior of a piece of cardboard, is seen leaping through a black night sky, lifting away from a yellowed blob of cloud towards a comet-like red smear with a green dot of an eye inside. The words “HARE LEAP” are shakily written twice in black ink — once at the center bottom, in the page-yellow cloudspace, and again in the black ink of the sky, which nearly absorbs it entirely.

If the hare’s celestial leap evokes a clichéd “reach-for-the-stars” sentiment, the shabby materials satirize that sentiment even as the apparent candor of the image intensifies the readymade space of the cliché. There’s a piece of schmutz near the center of the page, doubling as a mythic hero. Seydel asks if we, if art, can have it both ways. Schmutz as schmutz, but also a soaring hare. This longing to transcend material, and the simultaneous frustration of not being able to quite do so while reveling in the pleasures of materiality, permeates the fictional Ruth’s work and echoes the relationship between Ruth, the material, and Robert, the collagist.

Throughout, the collages evoke another era. It’s a time that’s incompatible with any historical reality, “a Queens of the mind” where Hannah Höch, Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Jean Conner, and Marcel Duchamp meet in the park to play chess and watch the squirrels. It’s made of the stuff on the underside of modernism’s heroics, excess’ scraps recomposed as elegy and homage.

Ruth’s journal pages, typewritten writings on aged paper, evince the same erudition, playfulness, and melancholic whimsy as the collages. Often ecstatic, they weave through lyrical, diaristic, surreal, narrative, and aphoristic modes, never settling long in one place. “Going,” Ruth writes, “is the only event.”

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