“draughty R.” Remembering Robert Seydel, continent.cc

Written in remembrance of artist, writer and teacher Robert Seydel, 1951 – 2011.

Online in continent., journal of the European Graduate School. Published May, 2011.

Images and full text available at continent.cc


draughty R.*

Lauren van Haaften-Schick
February 2011

“The most apt way to order Smithson’s library is with the conjunction ‘and’; science and religion;
modernism and mass culture; what is present and what is missing.”
—Alexander Alberro

Robert Seydel’s classes on collage and collecting immersed his students in a curious world of cabinets, oddities, exhaustive archives and obscure histories, explored always with critical rigor and a sincere eye for wonder. His office was a compendium of the ancient, mythic, potential and unworldy, where seemingly unrelated references were endlessly pulled, piled and fused in an ecstatic dance of hyper-annotation. The small room and all its contents overflowed with notes tucked in every margin and corner. Books coated the walls like a switchboard, anxious and humming, waiting for infinite links to be activated. William Blake’s books of Job and Urizen summoned Greek mythology and the animal as metaphor, leading to 19th century cryptozoology and the cave paintings at Lascaux, Gaston Bachelard’s description of the bird in his garden and Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon. Tracking archetypes and following tangential threads, new revelations and ancient narratives were compiled and ordered to form a new text, a bibliography as assemblage, portrait and poem. Robert’s library—one of his many collections—is a portrait, an “artifact, collage of time, a token and remnant” (Seydel, 2007) He is humming with it still.

The imagination of this room—of Robert—breathes through the pages of Book of Ruth, as every decision and detail unfolds to a cosmos. Allegory, invention, personal and art histories are entangled and leveled, rendering lived, perceived and absorbed experiences indistinguishable. Anonymous scraps discovered on the street or studio floor, careful clippings and drawn figures are chosen and animated through serendipitous destruction and whimsical, delicate positioning. A precise vocabulary of characters and terms erupts and collapses as personas and passers-by wave and whisper, “Every figure reveals aspects of the total form, which is open and green” (Seydel, 2007). The initials R.S. repeat, a nod to Robert’s true family tree and further complicating identification. Robt, Robert’s sometimes alter-ego, appears in myriad forms as a trickster “half-wit,” mercurial and skittish, or soft and worn thin. Saul is a solemn tinkerer, parsing the world and sometimes blind. Ruth, the speaker of the book, records and translates all, her voice wavering between poetic verse and a cryptic half-speech as complex as it is sparse. The rhythm of frayed edges sets time – the weight of the world and the lightness of paper.

Robert wrote of his process, “Material is essential; scuffings carry history, which wanders throughout” (Seydel, 2007). Collectors, assemblers, sway between careful movements of selection and placement as they pull from the found world, mediating calculated and unconscious association to form a lexicon of gestures, symbols and allusion, the “artifacts of a life… the refuse and rejecta of days” (Seydel, 2007). These assembled fragments shift and chatter, at home in their homelessness, actors performing in their own lives, populating an invented world of similar orphans. Such accumulated, severed parts carry the injury of their cutting and retain the evidence of their source, binding loss to creation in a symbiosis of trauma and repair.

Mourning and remembrance are deeply embedded in the histories and acts of such practices. Grievance, acceptance, and the fragility of life are conveyed in the 18th century allegorical arrangements of fetal specimens by Frederik Ruysch. A certain melancholy reverence colors Joseph Cornell’s intimately tactile assemblages rendering the universe tangible in miniature, or made in devotion to unrequited loves. Preserved in stasis, these ghosts and idols are kept in a purgatory where fact and fiction, past and present are irrelevant distinctions. Catalogued and contained, the subject of loss is transferred to an artifact. Every thread, scrap and letter may be glued, gathered and placed in a museum, a tomb, a box, a page, ripe and open for possession. Holding on to grief and reveling in disrepair, we opt to be haunted. Forever unbalanced and in flux, the sublime of collage is its resolve to irresolution.

For Robert, “Art, as creation and as sign of primary Imagination, is not objects but a state, a kind of fluid” (Seydel, 2007) Reflecting on his work, life, and death, I am drawn to my library and the myriad titles acquired through his inspiration. There is Daniel Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, Susan Stewart’s On Longing, various Borges, Barthes, Perec, and especially Life: A User’s Manual, which concludes that the perfect puzzle will have no solution. I think of the drawers of miscellaneous swallowed objects at the Mutter Museum, Ray Johnson coding the every day in riddles, Wallace Berman twisting tongues, and Susan Hiller laying every detail to bear. Collectors and makers working in endless cycles of observation, ingestion and display. Every gesture informs and is defined by others, every space is shaped by that which surrounds and fills it, the knot has an inner logic, the gigantic is not so different from the miniature, there is a world in every detail, and “All art is collage” (Seydel, 2011) These thoughts have molded my life, my art, and all the minutia that keep the two so profoundly intertwined; There is no difference between life and what we do with our time. “I write my life. I make me up.” What a gift to share this secret way of knowing the world, and to leave this knowledge for us to do with what we please. “Art begins in admiration” (Seydel, 2011)

Lauren van Haaften-Schick is a curator, writer and artist based in New York. Upcoming curatorial projects include “Cancelled” at the Center for Book Arts, and “The Spirit of the Signal” at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery, New York. Recent activities include the workshops “Market, Alternative” and “Alternative Art Economies” at Trade School and Momenta Art, and the e-flux Time/Store, New York. She is the founding director of two arts spaces in Northampton, MA and Philadelphia, PA. She received a BA in Art History and Studio Art from Hampshire college in 2006.

Albero, Alexander. “Robert Smithson.” In The Catalog of Robert Smithson’s Library. Ed. Jane Hyun. Berkley & Los Angeles: University of California Press. 2004. Print.

Seydel, Robert. “Artist’s Statement.” CUE Art Foundation. 2007. Web.

Seydel, Robert. Book of Ruth. Siglio Press. 2011. Print.