Art Book: Robert Seydel’s “Book of Ruth”

By Jocelyn HeaneyMay 20, 2012

Book of Ruth by Robert Seydel

"ART BEGAN IN A DESIRE for disguise," writes Ruth Greisman, the "Sunday painter" and alter ego of Robert Seydel's brilliant poetry-art creation, Book of Ruth, published last year. A photographer, artist, and professor at Hampshire College, Seydel died of heart attack at the tragically young age of 51, just before the book was published by Los Angeles-based Siglio Press.

Ruth's story is at once the inner life of a lonely woman laid bare, and a wily series of alternate identities. It is not a linear narrative about Ruth's life, but a chronicle of her internal creative process, in which there is no obvious correspondence between the images and words. Ruth's collages often include pieces that recall the wood-engraved illustrations of Max Ernst's surrealistic collage novels, Une Semaine De Bonte and La femme 100 tetes, where sequences of images are arranged by the dream logic of automatic association.

Book of Ruth is presented as a series of art works, journal entries and letters sent to the artist Joseph Cornell.  It is also an homage, in the form of an imagined life, to Seydel's real-life Aunt Ruth. I like to think Seydel wished to explore the hidden side of his aunt, to give dignity to her frustrated desires, to know more deeply her secret joys, to inhabit another consciousness in an attempt to leave a nuanced, if largely imagined, record of an ordinary woman's life.

A painter, dreamer, visionary, and lonely bank clerk, Seydel's Ruth is a wonderful hybrid character, who we meet through a series of short texts and her own collages. Many of those are portraits, in which early 20th century photos have the heads replaced by images of melons, rodents and crushed bottle caps, or disfigured and obscured under layers of white and red paint. Acknowledging that these images are self-portraits, portraits of her own multiple identities, she writes to her muse and love object, Joseph Cornell: "I am always a little visible behind my mask." Her creator, Robert Seydel, remains a bit more elusive. In an obvious sense, of course, all of Ruth is Seydel. Seydel's sense of humor appears in the form of curious moles and worms peeking at the oblivious faces in the collages, but as an alter-ego he remains harder to trace. Even the "author photograph" at the end of the book is another collage.

The Book of Ruth, Seydel's final work, hardly feels like an elegy. It is one of those rare events in art and poetry that actually inspires the reader to write, to create, to make something, and to document and even celebrate the many seemingly insignificant things that make up a human life.

In his preface to Ruth's imagined life, Seydel includes real biographical facts. Ruth Greisman, Seydel's Brooklyn-born aunt lived with her brother, Seydel's uncle Sol. Neither Ruth nor Sol ever married and they lived together for most of their adult lives "not far from the Cornell place on Utopia Parkway" in Queens. Seydel suggests, or imagines, that Sol and Ruth met Cornell and through him, Marcel Duchamp (and Duchamp's wife Tiny, to whom Ruth's "Ten Teeny Collages for Tiny" is dedicated).

Ruth fell in love with Cornell, Seydel writes, because he was "in his own way, as impossible and as sealed-off as her brother." Throughout the narrative, Sol's life serves as a kind of cautionary tale about the dangers of isolation and despair. Ruth's mentor and soul mate Cornell is a mirror of her family legacy of creativity and loneliness. Cornell's brother Robert suffered from cerebral palsy, and Cornell took care of him until Robert's death in 1965. Famously shy and reclusive himself, Cornell also achieved transcendence through the practice of making assemblages, collages and experimental films.

To Ruth, Cornell feels as close as his home on Queens' Utopia Parkway, "Flushing is close to heaven, Joseph: Park Way to the star," and as distant as the paint splatter constellations in his famous assemblages such as Hotel De L'Etoile.

For Ruth, "art begins in admiration," and these missives of word and image sometimes feel like wildly creative fan letters — filled with references to the soap bubbles, dovecotes and lobsters of Cornell's exquisite boxes. Ruth also shares Cornell's desire to construct an alternate world: "I have no imagination for what is," she writes. 

A veteran of World War I, Seydel's Uncle Sol suffered from shell shock. Ruth reveals to Cornell that Sol "retreated into must and porcelain/The spheres of our losses" — a description that evokes dual realities — Sol's "sealed off" mental spaces and the close quarters of Ruth and Sol's apartment. Ruth admits that she too is also somewhat broken. She claims to be "ruined by beauty — nothing and no one is good enough. Beauty makes a desert of life." By the end of the book Ruth has decided that collage is "the privileged medium of melancholics," but she is ever vigilant — careful not to share Sol's fate. "Failures surround us, Joseph," she writes, "Sol is their sign." Ruth, though no stranger to sadness herself, proclaims:

         I will invent who I am, against what is.

         My name & time: a Queens of the mind.

Ruth's dual realities are made possible by Seydel's considerable powers as both poet and visual artist. But as sad, lyrical, and beautiful as Book of Ruth is, it never takes itself too seriously. Both fleeting and factual, Ruth's fractured poetry feels like direct or "automatic" transcriptions from the unconscious, as if, as she suggests, "Time opens fountains in every thing." Exalted statements are undercut with self-deprecating humor: "Art is mesmerism. / I can only make a word stick with glue."

Ruth also outlines the differences between the process of writing and visual art. Language seems to make Ruth feel restless, driven, or perhaps simply uncomfortable, while the making of images provides a sense of richness and completion: "Words make me itch," she writes. "A picture is a ripeness."

Her images, too, range from the hilarious and grotesque collage "Othello," in which the head of a pensive Orson Welles obscures the crotch of a classical nude, to the haunting Magritte-like "Untitled (Woman and Bird)" featuring a woman with a mask of wrinkled, perhaps windblown newsprint molded to the contours of her face.

Via Ruth, Seydel guides us through a world united by blood reds and muddy browns, in which nostalgia, childhood and photographic convention are re-imagined. In the collage entitled "39" a woman stands in a blurred black and white garden. Part photograph, part painting, her real identity is replaced by blazing red cartoon eyes and a brown circle for a head. A child who seems to have wandered in from the pages of an old school primer or a volume of nursery rhymes, bears a bowl of eggs, while a regal, almost man-faced lion crouches at their feet.

Painting over turn-of-the-century photographs, altering postcards or simply assembling ephemera, from comics to ads, Seydel also depicts the hidden selves of Ruth and Sol. The hare represents Ruth, and Sol appears as a worm or star-nosed mole. Seydel also surfaces in the narrative, as does Robert, Cornell's homebound brother, and Seydel himself. "My nephew is a nut," she reveals. More poignantly, the section "Further Journals and Other Ephemera" begins with a fabricated fragment from "an old Elizabethan song or play" and evokes Seydel's desire to know his aunt's inner life, as well as the immortality he has given Ruth through his art: "Who reads me when I am ashes, is my nephew in wishes." The hushed sounds of "ashes" and "wishes" unite the living and the dead, reminding us that reading is always a conversation across time and space, the bridging of an otherwise impossible gap.

In the collage, "Rare/Hare Leap," Ruth appears as a ragged rabbit made of paint and grayish-brown paper scraps leaping toward a painted red and blue comet or falling star. "Rare/Hare" is one of many images of aspiration. The soaring rabbit evokes a longing for unity, both through and beyond the human world. If such cosmic oneness is impossible in life, we can catch some glimpse of its perfection through art — the correspondence of word and image.

In only two lines, Seydel can distill and expand the symbols and reality of Ruth's world in a unique spiritual vision. "A trembling animal at the edge of thought. / We fold up lost men in our wings or arms, robes." On a larger narrative level, this tension between restriction and desire, expansiveness and limitation propels Ruth's story: "Walking to Utopia Parkway," Ruth says, "is like shipping out to sea." A longing for travel — revealed in old prints of exotic sailboats with messages to Duchamp typed across the water's surface — combines with a desire for spiritual transcendence. This yearning is rendered perfectly in the simple, gorgeous piece "Starry Hare." Here the silhouette of a rabbit is pasted in the foreground of a turn of the century postcard depicting a gentle lagoon framed by palm fronds. The hare's role as shadow self is enhanced by its dark body that seems to be composed of a deep, shimmering green, which could be the surface of a distant sea as much as a blurry constellation in a night sky.

On another page, Ruth wryly reflects that "Glue was made from rabbit skin," a glib comment on the nature of her own humble materials, while she simultaneously embraces creativity's transformative power and its frivolity: "Imagination is foolish. Mine hops like a rabbit." A page later, she declares: "Only imagination counts," as if insisting on the arbitrary, contradictory nature of thought.

But Ruth's writing is not simply a flurry of unedited ideas. It is full of incisive observations and plain statements, such as "Unrequited affection is ugly," which bristle with submerged anger and disappointment at her beloved. Cornell, who created homages to dancers and movie stars, certainly understood the desolation of loving from afar, but the artist is more Ruth's imagined confessor than her genuine correspondent.  Still, in his preface Seydel tells us that Ruth's work was discovered, among other places "among the boxes of miscellanea at the Joseph Cornell Study Center."

Ruth's book is as much a testament to creative power as a means to discover the deeply strange experience of life itself. No matter how much of Ruth's work is assembled from discarded fragments, she reminds us that art is not a static nostalgia, but an active awareness of the present: "It isn't memory that matters,/ but the instant, a picture so sharp it pierces."

When Ruth recalls her childhood, we see in her awareness of primary color all the simple riches of the sensual world, and the rewards of simply paying attention:

                  Even the spill of children on the pavement,

                  of which I was one, after school at three,

                  o'clock was a kind of moving painting....

                  Red hats & red sneakers,

                  yellow skirts, the sky, the wind & newspapers.

Quotidian, surreal, sublime and revelatory, Seydel's legacy in Book of Ruth is perhaps, most powerfully a record of everyday ecstasies. Ruth reminds us that, "A breeze is more perfect than any thing," and makes refreshingly matter-of-fact assertions: "I like animals and dirt." Perhaps Seydel's enduring accomplishment is the construction of a rich dream world that heightens our perception of ordinary reality. Beyond a story told in poetry and picture, Book of Ruth is itself a way of seeing.

LARB Contributor

Jocelyn Heaney earned an MFA in Poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is currently at work on a memoir.


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