Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse have just published Songs of S. with Maybe S.: a posthumous cycle of poems, collage works, and journal writings left behind by Robert Seydel, who suddenly died of a heart attack in 2011 while preparing for a course he was to teach at Hampshire College. Siglio has also newly published A Picture is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth, another posthumous collection. That book is a collection of journal pages written by Seydel’s alter ego, Ruth Greisman, who was inspired by his aunt of the same name. Opening with a fitting collage frontispiece featuring a beaten vintage photograph of a sailboat on a raging sea with a painted red-orange sun hanging in the sky and the word “V O Y A G E” in bold black typeface, the publication of A Picture is Always a Book accompanies an exhibition entitled “Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter,” showing at the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton Massachusetts, and later traveling to the Queens Museum of Art in New York, and the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College in Chicago. These pages taken from old and brittle photo books add even more playfulness to a body of work that’s already fascinating and impressive (if only for its singularity and dreamlike perspective).
Spending time with the two newly published books, it’s clear that Seydel’s very strange and marvelous work challenges stock adjectives and remains indifferent to genres. They are objects to be admired. With A Picture is Always a Book, each photo book paper collage page containing the Ruth journals typed from a typewriter, features Seydel doodles in pen, crayon, and marks using various media. The presses did a fine job of assembling and printing Seydel’s work, and allowing his genre-less work to stand on its own: Songs of S. is the book of slightly more refined writings in the form of lyric poems. With the keen editorial eye of Robert’s friend, the poet Peter Gizzi, this cycle of poems is paired with Maybe S., a color pamphlet of drawings,neatly tucked into a fold in the back of the book’s jacket. A Picture is Always a Book also contains, along with Ruth’s journal pages, an interview between Seydel and Savina Velkova.
Who was Robert Seydel? With one glimpse at the smattering of Seydel’s collages, the pamphlet of drawings by S., and other parts of the Ruth-engaged work made available since his death, it becomes clear that he was an inventive archivist of human experience. A professor at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, Seydel had a fascinating practice of art-making, with classes geared toward teaching students how to collage and collect; and his own archives of curiosities, artifacts, references, annotations and histories show a thrill for knowledge and a connective universe. He seemed to have been one of those rarities who not only taught others, but was always busy making things, and, a distinctively important and timely trait, he was interested in the “shiftiness of gender and identity,” as he tells it in the interview with Velkova.
There are many pages in A Picture, which might appear to be observation or emoting, from the author behind the author: Seydel. But in fact, it was decidedly Ruth who wrote and drew and rendered all these things. A little red breasted robin on a wobbly street light, the many stamp-looking stars or the smoking black or red locomotive stamps boxed in with crayon; or surreal lines like the Reverdy-esque: “A man w/ a hole in his head coughed,” or apparently “personal” and the deceptively-confessional: “I was beautiful as a girl. But that wrecked me.” The use of nonsense (or better: other sense) tenderness, loose construct, live editing, and amateur visual aspect belie Seydel’s having a rigorously conceptual approach. Part of his amateur style emerges in conversation with, for instance, “what’s referred to as the ‘Animal Style’ in art — from Native American pictographs and the history of Paleolithic stone to, say, Henri Michaux and Dubuffet” (p. 101).
Seydel’s work is experimental and highly original, like that Joseph Cornell, and unlike Marcel Duchamp (whose works both artists come after in terms of lineage and affinity). His collages seem to spring from a responsive sense of reverie, rather than a colder kind of intellectual assemblage. With Cornell as an important precursor to Seydel, Ruth is able to share and explore “the idea of collage as a total way of working, and of magic and combinatory art,” with a sense of fantasy, longing, and relation. Ruth even “sends objects and missals and valentines of sorts to Cornell just as he sent his to Dietrich or his ballerinas,” which explains in part why so much of this work seems so open. Seydel, or Ruth (or both) wished to show something.
In the tradition of many who preceded him, Seydel most often worked under the guise of another identity, such as the aforementioned Ruth. “From Browning to Pound to Pessoa, speaking in voices was a way to carry history and multiplicity into the poem.” (p. 104) As a child does, the artist-poet situated himself in the realms of the imagination with a sharp eye for discovery in daily life, and from there was able to bemuse on anything he’d like. He seemed to have done this effortlessly. Take for example, from one of Ruth’s Further Writings, the simple and odd lines: “Light of Snow, Hat-Solitude & Portense. Is Portia me?” or in “florida” when Ruth relates the “pelicans moving across the marsh” in typeface which suddenly turns into an Apollinairean calligramme where the words “cough drops” are first encircled and then descend the page like rain. This kind of odd juxtaposition delights because it really isn’t trying to tell you something. The former text example is accompanied by the surprisingly satisfying scrap of purple and white paper, which looks like a drawing of an ice-capped mountain with an inverted goal post. The words seem to sit there beside each other, beneath constructed landscapes bearing black circle suns, bluebirds, curtains, matzoh balls, geometric shapes, various types of eyeballs, and figures which are neither human nor alien: all just to wait and see what happens. Another of Ruth’s journal pages begins with the simple line “I seek a flower in my mind.” And don’t we all, Ruth?
For outsider artists like Robert Seydel — many of whom keep their work private throughout their careers — there’s no need for aesthetic sophistication, only the revelry during making and discovering that comes easily to the amateur, and little need for audience at all. Do something, goes the age-old order. In the case of Seydel, who saw art “as a kind of exit out of the self” as giving animation to imagination, we’re left with hitherto unseen hand-drawn doodles, collages, and typewritten object-lessons that are epitomes of our time — the fragmented, curious, and anything but ordinary world in which we’ve found ourselves.
Robert Seydel with Peter Gizzi. Songs of S. with Maybe S. (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse with Siglio, distributed by DAP, 2014). ISBN: 978-1-938221-05-7. 112 pages, $24.00
Robert Seydel and Savina Velkova, A Picture is Always a Book: Further Writings from the Book of Ruth (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse with Siglio, distributed by DAP, 2014). Ed. Lisa Pearson. ISBN: 978-1-938221-06-4. 112 pages, $36.00print