Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel
Siglio Press, 2011
152 pages, 90 color and 32 b/w illustrations
“Ruth is the artist in the Book.” Thus declares the preface of Book of Ruth, a collection of collages and writings from the late Robert Seydel, who lived in Amherst and taught at Hampshire College. Presented as a series of mailings between the eponymous artist and her brother Saul/Sol, and friends Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp (Cornell and Duchamp are indeed listed simply as friends), the book serves as a sort of archive of Ruth’s art, which was found in the basement of the Smithsonian and in a garage in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The work establishes this fictional foundation from the beginning, placing the authorial persona and her friends at center stage (were they actually friends? Were these collages actually found in a basement? Did Robert or Ruth make these collages?). It turns out Ruth Greisman was Robert’s aunt, and he invokes her name and image as the artist in the Book. As the work unfolds, characters take on new personas, and the fictional dimension swells and expands. Book of Ruth dwells excitedly around the boundary between the fictional world and reality, and presents this excitement in a swirling, cleverly disguised narrative that calls upon the sublimity of ephemera and poetry.
Though the artist makes her presence known throughout the book, by occasionally signing her letters and collages, many voices and characters share the page – glaring, bug-eyed creatures that peek around corners, Ruth’s symbolic hare, and a detached (“mostly invisible,” Seydel writes in the preface) scribe named “Robt” who appears in writings about the workspace or other personal items – “My desk’s beautiful & wood, a tree (house) for art.” These figures, among others, are the “personas of personas” which lend to the Book a narrative of travel, of adventure, of exploration, a story that moves from loud, bustling, concrete Queens, NY to an abstract but vaguely familiar world of bright colors and old family photos.
You would be hard-pressed to find the hare (Ruth) in her natural habitat; the closest she gets to her woodland home is in a collage where she sits by a lake, but here we only get the shape of the hare, her body filled in with the starry shapes that seem to come from the reflection of sun on water. In another collage, the hare, made of crumpled tin foil, jumps triumphantly upward, as a bottle cap “H” begins the word “hare” above her. The bug-eyed creatures, so much like Ray Johnson’s rabbits, can be found anywhere: hiding behind hills, in the sun, even adorned on the face of Ruth. As we turn the pages, we follow their journey; it seems their travels are whimsical and colorful, as each collage evokes a powerful sense of person, place or time. The scraps and found materials that make up the collages invite an intimate scrutiny, and may reward you with genuine laughter at their brilliant reordering, or with serious introspection and awe for the very same reason.
13 pages in the middle of the Book are “Formulas and Flowers,” a series of short writings which could satisfy Italo Calvino’s dream for cosmologies based entirely on epigrams. The writings range from blunt confessions (“I like animals & dirt.” and “I pretend I understand the sky.”) to curious bits of advice (“Duct tape/the dumb mind.”). The narrative of Ruth and co. continues here too, side by side with the invisible “Robt,” as we learn “Sol has big ears” and that “Sol is an ‘Oont’ (Mole).” Like the collages in the rest of the book, these epigrams burst with magic when placed side by side. Their brevity calls to mind the short lived materials that make up the collages, like scraps of paper or stains, and the fulfilling new image they create when they are realized as a whole. Robert always talked about striking “moments” when looking at students’ art; in “Formulas and Flowers” there are several: “I’d walk a mile in a canary blue bathing suit just to get a Coke for you.” “A rabbi is nearly a rabbit.”
Robert left too soon. This incredible collection, which presents work from over the past decade, leaves you wondering what more would be to come. Luckily for us, Robert’s nature as a teacher is not absent from the Book; much of the writings are written as if we were his assumed pupils: “All art is collage.” “The collage is composite: time & matter – the most philosophical art.” “Distress makes a picture.” “Art begins in admiration.” Enough is to be enjoyed in Book of Ruth as there is to be learned. Though “Robt” is “mostly invisible” throughout the work, his influence is clear. Let this be a textbook for future collagists, poets, and artists of all kind, especially those enamored with the ephemeral substances life tends to throw at you.
Ryan Mihaly studies music and art at Hampshire College. He can be reached at email@example.com.