Robert Seydel: Reading is always an intimate act

News Section, Reviews, Robert Seydel

November 3rd, 2015


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


Assembled from Scraps: A Remembrance of Robert Seydel


Originally published September 23, 2015

I first met the artist and poet Robert Seydel halfway through my second year at Hampshire College, after sending him a cold-call email asking if he would oversee an independent study on the literary group the Oulipo. Over that winter break, I had devoured my girlfriend’s tattered copy of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I wanted to spend a full semester taking a deeper dive into its tradition of intricate, constraint-based literature. When I asked around to see who might be able to take this project on, the name of a certain eccentric photography professor—one who chain-smoked, slept little, worked feverishly on his art, and nurtured his students’ peculiar obsessions as though they were his own—kept coming up.

Although photography was Robert’s supposed métier (he studied the medium in graduate school, and was for many years a curator at Boston University’s Photographic Resource Center before turning to teaching), his enthusiasms were deeply and genuinely hybrid; fiction and poetry influenced him as much as anything in the visual arts did. By the time I began to work under him, in the early aughts, Robert’s photographic practice had shifted toward something significantly more complex than his early work: he had become a maker of meticulously layered works on paper that incorporated all manner of found imagery and flattened street detritus, delicate small assemblages in antique cigar boxes, and an interrelated stream of written texts, all created using a common language of invented, cipher-like characters.

Robert took me on for the Oulipo study, despite his overextended schedule that semester, purely out of his own deep fondness for the more experimental strains of world literature. I then spent the next two years working with him in his idiosyncratic studio-art courses, and eventually had him on my final-year thesis committee. I remember Robert telling me, as I’m sure he often told other students who worked closely with him, that “our culture doesn’t support what we do, so we need to carve out time for our real work.” For Robert, that time-carving was a strict daily regimen, almost monkish in its commitment to art. His creative practice was a daily ritual. Every day, he would wake up early, hours before his paid workday began, to read intensely, smoke cigarettes, and drink coffee. In the evenings, coming home from teaching and meetings and class critiques and more meetings—and if he didn’t have any social obligations—he would unplug the phone, make another pot of coffee, and get back to work, which, for him, was more like play than actual labor: “work as play,” as he liked to put it. He maintained this schedule of solitary rigor for many years.

In a number of ways, Robert was a perfect match for Hampshire, which first opened as an experiment in higher education in 1970 and today retains many of the radical pedagogical approaches from that founding era. Nestled into a slowly undulating landscape of farmland and apple orchards near the outer border of Amherst, Massachusetts, the college can still be utopian for students whose academic interests lie across traditional departmental boundaries. A student’s final year is spent producing a single work in his or her chosen discipline or combination of disciplines, alongside a small committee of professors. As a deep admirer of the storied Black Mountain College—as well as of the artists and poets involved with that visionary moment in mid-century arts education, such as John Cage, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Ray Johnson, and others—Robert must have imagined Hampshire operating within a similar tradition, a kind of semi-rural laboratory where faculty and students could experiment in tandem.

When Robert sat on my own thesis committee, I met with him weekly and, in the warmer months, we would stand outside while he smoked an endless series of cigarettes and talked about film, gallery shows, poets, novels, museum catalogs, sound art, Townes Van Zandt, small presses, anthropology, art brut, and other topics barely even tangentially related to my own project. His exhaustive, Borgesian syllabi capture his spirit perfectly. Covering his outlines for several ambitious photography workshops (like “Still Photography II: Art, Personae, and the Performance of Selves”) and a few interdisciplinary courses (“The Walking Arts” and “The Collector: Theory and Practice,” a popular class that was co-taught with art historian Sura Levine), each syllabus is near twenty pages long and swollen with quotes, images, exercise ideas, and exhaustive bibliographies. Each lengthy inventory of suggested books is preceded by a category subject, which often forks off into several subcategories, each with their own reading lists. One bibliography, for an introductory studio art class titled “Collage: History and Practice,” was organized in this labyrinthine structure:

Collage: 1) General, 2) Cubism (Mostly Literary), 3) Italian Futurism, 4) Russian Futurism (Cubo-Futurism), 5) Dadaism, 5a) General, 5b) New York Dada, 5c) Marcel Duchamp, 5d) Zurich Berlin Cologne and Hannover, 5e) Paris Dada, 6) Surrealism, 6a) Preliminary, 6b (Writings), 6c) Secondary (Histories and Visual Anthologies), 6d) Other Surrealisms, 6e) Jean Dubuffet and Art Brut, 6f) Art Brut (Selected Individual Artists), 6g) Joseph Cornell, 7) Bauhaus (Highly Select), 8) Cobra and Situationist International (Highly Select), 9) OuLiPo (Workshop for Potential Literature), 10) Fluxus, 10a) Dieter Roth, 11) John Cage, 12) Jiri Kolar, 13) Ray Johnson, 14) American and British Pop, 15) California and Beat, 16) New York School, 17) A Few Others, 18) Literature (Highly Selected).

Almost the entirety of twentieth-century avant-garde art is crammed into this one lower-level course syllabus, which brims with contagious excitement.

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