An Epic Work in Miniature: The Pictures and Processes of Robert Seydel's by Jennifer Stob

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Robert Seydel on view at CUE Art Foundation March 15 - April 21, 2007.

A red sky seeps down a picture postcard and floods a 19th-century street.  A man-child with curls and a trench coat smiles vacantly; an alluring piece of shoulder hovers nearby.  A woman with a crumpled bit of type for a head is haloed by a dirty white label backing, and guarded by a red-eyed bird.  This is the universe of salvaged objects that exists within the art of Robert Seydel, where bottle caps and newspaper ads take on new meanings through their juxtaposition with words, graphite and paint.  Seydel's drawings and collages imply a disinterest in all that is holistic or straightforward, inviting us instead to ponder the mysterious source material and its more mysterious organization on the page.

Fragments of poetry or prose are easily conjured from Seydel's work; his assemblages were made expressly to converse with the written, and naturally suggest further comparisons.  He emphasizes that the five series presented in this exhibition represent varied attempts to "write an art, to make of the visual a kind of text." In order to comprehend the stories and their protagonists we must learn to read pictorially, making associations between scraps of text and the figures they surround.  These images insist that our role as viewers must also be open-ended: as we see the images before us, our thoughts and reactions complete their creation.

For the past six years Seydel has labored over the ongoing series, The Book of Saul.  He calls it "an epic work-but an epic work in miniature." Its protagonists are fictional versions of his real aunt and uncle, Saul and Ruth Greisman, siblings who never married and lived out their years together in Flushing, Queens.  Seydel creates his art in the fictional persona of Ruth; The Book of Saul is her artistic expression, her visual record.  More abstract than a diary, more intimate than correspondence and characterized by enigmatic authorship, these small and intimate pages resemble Books of Hours.  Like those illuminated manuscripts, Ruth's Book of Saul is a devotional text and an intensely private labor of love.

Seydel's reclusive and ritualistic process of creation via Ruth is suffused with tenderness, even when this tenderness remains indirect.  The dominant theme in The Book of Saul is unrequited love, which can also be interpreted as a kind of secret caretaking.  This caretaking manifests itself through an emphasis on portraiture.  It remains secret because the subjects of Ruth's portraits are never truly meant to see their likenesses, and because personas, emblems and silhouettes are forms of portraiture that help disguise rather than reveal.  Some of the pages and pages of "painted papers" generated through the persona of Ruth depict her in the form of a hare, while Saul (neither the producer nor the sole subject matter of the series that bears his name) frequently appears as a worm or a star-nosed mole. 

Still others portray the artist Joseph Cornell in different guises-his identity is assigned to found photographs and other pictures, and his name surfaces in Ruth's short and elegant illustrated prose which accompanies the more strictly visual artwork.  In Untitled [to Joseph C.], an antiquated photograph has been carefully embellished with a star that shines just above the young boy's head and a dedication at the top and bottom: "to...Joseph C." In this way, many of the assemblages act as unsent love letters.  As with all of Seydel's artwork, the collages from The Book of Saul are not much larger than a Tarot card or a snapshot.  The work's compact scale accentuates its emotional intensity and its iconographic efficiency.  Within these intimate spaces Seydel creates his correspondences through cultural memory, personal memory and wordplay.          

Seydel's combined interest in the medium of collage, the fluidity of portraiture and the creation of personas strongly evokes the artistic experiments of the European avant-garde before World War II.  More immediate similarities can be found in the postwar generation of artists working in America, who further tinkered with the artistic heritage of Surrealism and Dada.

In addition to Joseph Cornell's presence in The Book of Saul, Seydel acknowledges other artistic kinships in his Homages, a series that pays tribute to the many authors and artists who have worked in a stream-of-consciousness, cut-and-paste tradition.  Although they do not feature in his Homages series, Seydel also cites two modern literary figures as particularly inspirational: Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) and Belgian-American poet Armand Schwerner (1927-99).  Throughout his literary oeuvre, Pessoa (whose name can mean "persona" in Portuguese) created dozens of fictional alter egos who wrote poetry to and for one another, just as Seydel's Ruth writes to her unwitting interlocutors.  Schwerner was also engaged in this invention of "heteronyms":  he presented his epic poem The Tabletsin the persona of a "scholar-translator" who compiled translations of and commentary on non-existent ancient tablets inscribed with hieroglyphics.

Seydel's art represents an engagement with similar fictional excavations, and uses biography as the mere pick or shovel.  In reference to Schwerner, Seydel explains, "He's got a bunch of notes-aphorisms-in relation to the work, and one of them says, Why leave fiction to the prose writers? Why do we accept a fictional 'I' in a novelistic setting? Why can't poets do that?" Seydel extends Schwerner's query, asking, "Why can't visual artists do that?" and answering with artwork.

For a society enthralled by the intermingling of fiction and documentary in the popular media, we are still only beginning to comprehend the implications of living in a world where the real and the fabricated slide so easily into each other.  Robert Seydel's collages suggest a kind of digitally resistant, antispectacular return to the fundamental question:  how does persona manifest itself and what kinds of associational bridges can it build? Each piece reminds us that if collage is indeed a nearly abandoned mode of creation, if its political potency has fallen definitively into doubt, its radical openness can never be questioned.  An art dedicated to the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life invites anyone to participate.

Art makers, art lovers and art historians alike often look at visual culture as a succession of precedents and influences.  Yet perhaps a more careful consideration of those who use persona as a formal process and those who work in the medium of collage would reveal them to be in a far less linear relation to one another.  Rather than progenitors and progeny, we could think of them as fellow members of an imagined society of arts and letters.  Their gathering place would take myriad forms: a coat pocket, a desk drawer, or even a dead letter office.  All of these places provide a treasure trove of raw material for art's potential beginnings and endings.


The writer, Jennifer Stob, is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University.  As one of the pioneering students in Yale's combined degree program of Film Studies and History of Art, her interests include experimental cinema of the 1920s and 1960s and the fashioning of subjectivity in modern art and photography.  She was the recipient of a Mellon Travel Grant in June 2006, and a Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Fellowship in December 2006.  Recent research lead to her involvement in programming and co-coordinating Yale's film conference, "Sixty-Eight: Europe, Cinema, Revolution?" which took place in February 2007.  Her dissertation is titled, "Faux Raccords: Lettrist, Situationist and French New Wave Cinema." Ms. Stob lives and works in Brooklyn.  The mentor was Mary Haus.  Since the 1980s Mary Haus has been an editor, journalist and art critic for a broad variety of general-interest and art publications.  From the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s Ms. Haus was an associate editor of Art + Auction magazine, managing editor of ARTnews magazine and managing editor of Colors, the international, multilanguage publication sponsored by Benetton and directed by Tibor Kalman, founder of the design firm M&Co.  She was Director of Communications for the Whitney Museum of American Art from 1994 until 2003.  As a writer, she has contributed to, among other publications, ARTnewsArtforumElleTown & Country, and Travel + Leisure. She lives in West Hartford, CT, and is a consultant with the New York-based arts communications firm Resnicow Schroeder Associates.