THE PARIS REVIEW DAILY
The Lonely Art: 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.”