“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.”
In many of these texts, a rectangular passage is accompanied by lineated fragments, stamped stars, or child-like colored pencil drawings. No single element is more important than another. The textual is visual and the visual is textual. The movement of the language in its box is at play with the the boxed red star above the stationary mountains or toes or nubs. The correspondence of these elements is loose and complex. Possible meanings abound at every turn. “Here’s air.”
The text itself is marshaled by freewheeling associative and aural movements. It traces consciousness in the process of catching itself in motion. Succinct declarations and definitions abutt nonsensical riffing, both frustrating and celebrating our desire for language to mean something: “Macy’s got nothin/ g on it, nor to compare. A flount of re/, yea, like fat pungent. We go through air.”
The personas of Ruth and Robert blur to a point where it’s irrelevant to define boundaries between them. Authorship is collage. That Robert should speak through the medium of Ruth who speaks through the medium of Robert.
Then there’s S. Almost entirely unrepresented in the work on display in The Eye in Matter, save for a few mentions in the notebooks, S. is a possibly schizophrenic recluse who, like Seydel, “occupied an apartment in a house in Amherst, Massachusetts, on a gray street around the corner from Emily Dickinson’s manse,” and who composed the lonesome, fractured lyrics collected in Songs of S. (Siglio/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014).
Both Ruth and S.’s writings access an interiority, a sense of being inside, in a person, in a room, but unlike Ruth, who brings the world – the polyphonic strangeness of it’s materials’ miscellaneous significations – into the room of her art, S. is an enclosed presence, a strained singer of confused subjectivities, resolutely alone with his library and language. He is both withdrawn and present, his artwork a frame through which he emerges. Otherwise, he almost isn’t.
In this untitled poem from Songs of S., S. questions the morality of solitude.
Even what I fail to say when I say me,
later in the day, my eye pink, I say regardless,
thru what I don’t say or can’t. Or is it, when I do,
that I don’t or vice-versa, & is that Moral?
If I have no compass to steer by
where is & what is, the Moral? Or can only
the larger stars & the heaven we thought once
make a human morality?
I don’t say what I say, I don’t say what,
& that is not moral. I say what I don’t say, & that
likewise is not moral.
Bio-graphy is small without a code.
I don’t live, altogether, therefore have no or little code.
Nor do I graph bio, because living little.
It is all very ugly, that way.
(“Untitled” p. 54, from Songs of S., Siglio/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014)
Like Ruth, S. is a careful composite, a voice composed of a chorus. One notices traces of Dickinson, Lax, Creeley, and Kyger in the poems’ movements and magnetism, though they’re uniquely naïve in their diction and childlike shifts in momentum.
“All language,” writes Ruth, “is finally collage.” In her New York Times review of The Eye in Matter, Martha Schwendener claims that “the initial problem with Mr. Seydel’s work is that it looks terribly familiar.” She decries the obvious borrowings from and allusions to Duchamp, Cornell, Johnson, and others. This reading overlooks an essential animating principle of Seydel’s work: that reading and being read are two sides of the same coin, partaking in a shared cultural/aesthetic material. Collage is homage, but also respiration. Seydel’s work reanimates the work of his forebears, who did the same for theirs, invigorating the tradition with unusual reverence and passion. “What poetry comes out of it goes into.” “& song is revision of song.”
In a 2010 interview, Seydel describes Ruth’s relationship to Cornell, one of unrequited and impossible longing, as a “desired distance.” Attainment of the object of one’s desire often stultifies. Beyond his role as the object of desire, Cornell presented a particular horizon toward which Ruth’s work could be pitched. Seydel’s own desired distance could be the “open & green” total form whose aspects are only incompletely revealed by singular iterations; a gentler, more American configuration of Edmond Jabés’ Book, from which all books partake and to which their words return.
“I want to pitch my tent / in the heart of being write,” S. writes in an untitled poem.
The pervasive meta-collage at play in Seydel’s pages is a “cut and paste like dig and bury” practice applied to the material of reading itself. He exhumes and invents, treating style, composition, imagery, and identity as raw material. It’s as if the work sprouts from the fingers of a living reading list. And that reading list, attended to by its inevitable elisions, its openings where wind goes through, constitutes an imagination. In a notebook on display in The Eye in Matter, Seydel writes, quoting Creeley quoting Williams, “Only the imagination is real.”
Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter continues at the Queens Museum (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens) through September 27.
The exhibition will close with “Quail Rise:” “R’s Queens” Reprised, an afternoon of readings and performances from Renee Gladman, Ross Simonini, Jane Carver, and others, that will take place on Sunday, September 27th from 3 pm to 5 pm.
His Ruth Greisman books include Book of Ruth (Siglio, 2011), a 152-page softcover containing both black and white and full color images of collages and poems, and A Picture Is Always A Book (Siglio, 2014), a lovely 112-page clothbound collection of Ruth’s journal pages, published to accompany the exhibition. Songs of S. (Siglio/Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014) is the sole book of S.’s poems, and comes with Maybe S., a booklet of S.’s drawings and handwritten excerpts from Seydel’s notebooks.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.