A prolific artist and writer, Robert Seydel (1960-2011), left behind a multi-layered, highly original body of work marked by both an unrelenting sense of play and an extraordinary and eclectic body of knowledge. Seydel’s ongoing and interrelated series incorporated collage, drawing, photography, narrative and lyric writing, often using various personas and fictional constructs. Beginning in 2000, Seydel created a vast series of works using the alter ego Ruth Greisman, who was inspired by his aunt of the same name, including the “journal pages” collected in A Picture Is Always a Book (Siglio, 2014) and the works Seydel himself selected for Book of Ruth (Siglio, 2011). Other Seydel alter egos and invented personas include S., author of the Songs of S. (Siglio and Ugly Duckling Presse, 2014), Saul Greisman (“scholar of sewage”), Eckstein-Sousa (“sometimes lecturer and a kind of [failed] poet with Proustian leanings”), and R. Welch (a professor developing a theory of “the biochemical construction of Charismatic figures”), among others.
In addition to the current exhibition “Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter,” Seydel had a single solo show, curated by Peter Gizzi, at CUE Art Foundation in 2007, and his work was also exhibited, and “Five Contemporary Visual Poets” at the Wright Exhibition Space in Seattle curated by Joshua Beckman. A beloved professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts for more than a decade, he also served as curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University for a number of years where he organized ambitious exhibitions and programs. Seydel also edited Several Gravities (Siglio, 2009), a volume of collages and poems by National Book Award-winning poet Keith Waldrop.
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A PICTURE IS ALWAYS A BOOK: A Micro Interview with Lisa Pearson, Robert Seydel’s publisher
ES: So much of the attention to Robert Seydel’s work is posthumous. Could you say a few words about how you discovered his work, and the trajectory from then to now?
LP: I founded Siglio in part to publish Robert’s work, a rare and exquisite species of literature in which the visual can be read and the textual is attuned to its physical and emotional presence on the page. It’s work that absolutely lives at the intersection of art and literature, in that in-between space both the art and literary worlds often find confounding. An important aspect of my mission with Siglio is to cultivate audiences for work that’s easily ignored because it’s unwieldy and uncategorizable. He was a dear friend who worked quite hermetically, so I very happily became his advocate, having long been a fan of his work.
He put Book of Ruth together before he died—it took about two years for him to select and sequence the works—but he never saw the finished book. A Picture Is Always a Book—the collection of Ruth’s “journal pages”—was something he and I talked about as a possible next publication while he was working on Book of Ruth. When Peter Gizzi, Richard Kraft and I were curating the exhibition “Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter” (next stop at the Queens Museum of Art in July), this book seemed like a perfect complement as opposed to producing a traditional catalog.
ES: As curator, publisher, and aficionado of Seydel, is there any single strand of his process you’d like to direct our readers’ attention to?
LP: Robert was an artist-poet whose influences ranged from Blake to Dickinson, Ray Johnson to Tom Phillips, the New York School to paleolithic cave paintings and Native American petroglyphs. Robert, like the emblem of the hare he so frequently used, made extraordinary leaps, intellectually and imaginatively. His work is nimble, infused with play, a great sense of wonder and the joy of discovering the unexpected connection. I would only say that readers be open and trust their instincts in making their own leaps as they engage the work.
ES: So many of the portraits are collaged to appear sightless, or speechless, and often faceless. Do you have any thoughts as to why Seydel (in the persona, Ruth) wanted the characters muted in this way?
LP: That’s a very interesting observation. I think it’s not so much about muting the voices—Ruth’s and Saul’s are strong and persistent in so many ways in both books. Instead, I think the heads/faces are often transformed so as to pull back the skin of portraiture, to see what might be inside the head/mind, or to take the detritus of the world (like bottle caps) and imbue it with expression and give it body, life. Many of those faces, with eyes closed, are indicators to me too of the state between sleeping and waking, or even life and death. They are masks of all kinds—there is always something that resides beneath the surface. Of course, I wish Robert could answer that question himself.
Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio, an independent press dedicated to publishing books that live at the intersection of art and literature. She has edited several titles including A Picture Is Always a Book: Further Writings from Book of Ruth, It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Works by Women Artists and Writers, Dorothy Iannone: You Who Read Me With Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends, and with Ron Padgett, The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard, among others.
The first four pieces are from Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel, Siglio, 2011. Image(s) courtesy of Siglio and the artist.
The last two are from A Picture Is Always a Book by Robert Seydel, Siglio, 2014. Image(s) courtesy of Siglio and the artist.
For More Information on Robert Seydel and Siglio Press: sigliopress.com