This excerpt from an interview Savina Velkova conducted with Robert Seydel last year is the only interview with Seydel before his sudden and unexpected death in January of this year. It reveals much about an artist whose own life and those of the personas he constructed were knitted in inextricable ways.
Seydel is the author of Book of Ruth (Siglio, 2011), an alchemical assemblage that composes the life of his alter ego Ruth Greisman—spinster, Sunday painter, and friend to Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp. The collages, drawings, and journal entries from Ruth’s imagined life are conceived as a gathering of materials from the Smithsonian and a suburban family garage. They not only construct a mosaic portrait of a reclusive, unknown artist but reveal much about the tenuous creation of self. More images from the book follow. The full interview can be read here.
SV: Where does the impetus to access and speak through a persona come from?
Speaking through another’s voice is hardly an original tactic, though I suppose to some degree it is in the visual arts. “I is another,” Rimbaud said, lodging uncanniness at the heart of what we are. From Browning to Pound to Pessoa, speaking in voices was a way to carry history and multiplicity into the poem. Armand Schwerner asked, as a poet, “Why leave fictive experiments to the prose writers?” I guess I’ve asked that myself, but as an artist. To attempt to make the hand obey another’s psychology, at least so far as you imagine it, doesn’t seem that different to me than fashioning the voice of a literary character.
And art has always seemed to me a kind of exit out of the self, a way to get beyond the self. I don’t think I’ve ever really understood why “self-expression” is an attractive motivation for making art, which is how students so often speak about what they’re doing. Who cares really? But to fashion a self, that seems to me another thing. Walt Whitman isn’t only that boy “starting out from Paumonak,” but “Walt Whitman, a kosmos”—that is, an invention. The artist’s job, according to both Robert Henri and Jasper Johns, is to invent himself.
SV: What role did Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp play in your development as an artist?
A number of other artists have been as important to me as Cornell and Duchamp. Wallace Berman and Ray Johnson and Tom Phillips come first to mind. And above all William Blake. I can remember saying to myself, in the way one does when one’s trying to figure out what you want or need to be doing, that my goal was to find a way to make visual art into a form of literature, with the kind of density I associated with my favorite writers. I think both Cornell and Duchamp are situated within that kind of territory. Duchamp’s notes for “The Bride Stripped Bare” is a great long poem, opaque and strange but wild and rich in its language and playful. I wouldn’t know how else to describe it but as a long poem including pictures, in the way that Pound said an epic is a long poem including history. Ruth is, I hope, in that kind of space, somewhere between the literary and visual arts.