Collaged poetry, or poems via the pictorial medium of collage? Robert Seydel confuses distinction between the visual and literal in his works on paper. When Queens-based artist Robert Seydel died in 2011 at age 50, he left behind of corpus of pages older than he was–taken from vintage albums and books, thick and yellowed with age, to which the artist added found images, paint, and words. Now many of these collages line the walls of the Queens Museum as part of the exhibition Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter while pages from his journals and typed poems fill cases in the center of the room. Playful, dense, intimate–this is a show that rewards careful attention and voyeuristic complicity.
I characterize the act of looking here as voyeuristic because the intimacy of scale is combined with the intimacy of the diarist’s musings. The first-person viewpoint of Ruth, an alter-ego Seydel adopts in these quasi-fictional accounts, creates a framing narrative to these fragmentary poems and paragraphs. Seydel tells an inaccurate story of Ruth and Saul, people who in real life were siblings–his aunt and uncle. Pages might describe Ruth’s obsession with artist Joseph Cornell. Seydel knew Cornell, working as his studio assistant, but the one-sided love affair was (probably) his own invention.
To a great degree, his own concerns blended with those of his fictional aunt, to the point that he said in an interview:
She’s so taken over part of my art-making function that I don’t really question her authenticity anymore. I thought originally I wanted to inhabit another person; now she inhabits me.
What keeps the interest of the viewer in such elaborate, personal arcana is a strong sense of humor, like in the work pictured above. The protagonists are pictured with Ruth’s emblem–the hare–like respectable 1940s space aliens having a family portrait made.
Seydel uses text in highly visual, nuanced ways. Even when typing up pages of poetry, the artist carefully spaced the words and allowed room for the insertion of stars or painted hares. “A picture always wants to be something else” Seydel said, and one has the sense that in his hands pictures and words were mercurial, amorphous vehicles for expression.
Robert Seydel: The Eye in Matter is on view at the Queens Museum of Art through September 27, 2015. Plaid Duchamp Recording in Magenta, a complimentary event featuring photographs, poetry, and 8mm short films inspired by Joseph Cornell, is happening this Sunday, August 16 from 3 to 5 pm.