Sydney Anne Neuwirth loves red.
The front door to her Princeton home is red. The jackets of some of the books she’s published are red, and there are red pillows, cloths, and cushions throughout the house. Even the mailman once remarked on the “spots of red” throughout the space she has called home for the past 14 years.
“I dress in black and white,” says the soon-to-be octogenarian. “But I do like red.” And, of course, red is a highlight color in many of her paintings.
To celebrate Neuwirth’s 80th birthday, Cranbury Station Gallery in Princeton is holding a three-day retrospective, “Along the Continuum,” opening Friday, October 10, with a 6 to 9 p.m. reception, and concluding Sunday, October 12.
And yes, there is red on the invitation and brochure, red on her business card, and even on the brochure for the Dancers’ Resource — the nonprofit organization started by her daughter, “Madam Secretary” co-star, “Frasier” alum, and Tony winner Bebe Neuwirth. Dancers’ Resource is the beneficiary of sales of her dancer paintings, both in the retrospective or from her website.
Although Bebe is the more well-known of the mother-daughter pair, Sydney is herself a Renaissance woman, having danced until she was 47 (“I wanted to go until I was 70 but my knees gave out,” she says), written and illustrated books of children’s literature and poetry, and created an oeuvre of paintings that numbers in the thousands.
Neuwirth works from a two-room studio in the home she shares with her husband, Lee, a mathematician. One of the two rooms is a sort of gallery space that collectors may visit by appointment. Belying the stereotype of an artist’s studio, Neuwirth’s is super organized.
With skin as smooth as porcelain and a compact and limber body, Neuwirth looks at least a decade and a half younger than her years. Is it the daily calisthenics and walks?
“It’s genes,” says Neuwirth.
Her grandfather, a Russian Jewish immigrant, sold house paint from a pushcart in Newark. It was so successful he soon went brick-and-mortar. The shop also stocked art supplies, and young Sydney, who lived upstairs, had free rein of the merchandise. She had an endless supply of art materials she engaged with at an early age.
It was a family business. Sydney’s mother, who graduated from the New Jersey College for Women, worked as a bookkeeper. The man she married — Sydney’s father — came to work as general manager, then opened a second store in East Orange. Sydney, too, worked in the store and drove the truck. Her uncle, who went to law school at Rutgers, joined the family business. His wife, Sydney’s aunt, was a printmaker who taught Sydney to never date her artwork. Though the reasoning is vague, Neuwirth continues the practice to this day.
Beyond the art supplies, Sydney discovered wallpaper samples and used them to make collages. She incorporated broken glass from the glass repair shop. A poem in her anthology attempts to explain to her daughter why broken glass is so important. “It made me realize I could experiment with anything,” she says.
“When they finally closed the store — I was married by then — I was shocked at the cost of art materials when I had to buy them.”
Sydney’s ballet lessons started at age 7. “It was great exercise and I loved it, even though I knew I’d never be a professional.”
She moved to Princeton when Lee — the two met in high school — was a senior at Princeton University. They married while Sydney was a junior at Douglass College and commuted, and then Lee commuted to Columbia to begin graduate studies. Soon he was back in Princeton, getting his doctorate, and then ultimately working for the Institute for Defense Analyses.
Once in Princeton, Neuwirth became actively engaged with Princeton Ballet. She took classes, danced with the troupe, and played the Queen Mother in “Sleeping Beauty” (Arthur Lithgow, then artistic director of McCarter Theater and father of John Lithgow, the actor, was her king), and joined the board of trustees, becoming its president. “I wrote everything for them, helped children with hair and makeup, and designed costumes for the hordes of kids who were butterflies.”
With a mother so involved in the world of ballet, it’s no surprise that Bebe wanted to dance from age 3. “We danced together at home, but I didn’t let her get started with Princeton Ballet until she was 5.”
While transporting Bebe to and from rehearsals, Sydney brought along a sketch pad and drew the dancers, from the smallest child to adults. “I would sketch backstage and in the wings,” she says. One might imagine the challenges of life drawing when the models are moving, but Neuwirth says her muscle memory helps her draw dancers in action. And if she needed an arm or a torso, Bebe could model for her.
As an English major at Douglass, Neuwirth had received good feedback on her writing, but she put that aside. An art minor, she found herself designing ads for Town Topics. Among her clients was Barry Snyder of Princeton Gallery of Fine Art. “We would talk art, and he once invited me to bring my art for critique. He said he really liked my treatment of negative space in ‘Double Rainbow Over Seattle.’ He was a wonderful influence, so I will never sell that painting. I was just beginning my professional career.”
Neuwirth started out painting in oils, but when acrylics became popular in the 1970s she switched. “I could finish painting and washing brushes while my children were napping,” she says. She also paints in watercolor and works in collage, incorporating negatives of family photos — and playing on the concept of negative space. Her subjects range from landscapes and florals to abstract and portraits of dancers.
A lifelong student, Neuwirth continued her art training through classes and workshops in life drawing and painting, auditing art history classes at Princeton University, and through travels to art museums in Italy, France, Spain, England, Switzerland, and Mexico. “I love the big skies of Arizona, and it has influenced me to use more intense colors in semi-abstract landscapes,” she says. “I love Japanese landscapes, which have influenced my abstract landscapes painted in a vertical format.”
Although she imparts her own personal feelings, thoughts, and experiences into the abstract works, she is happy for viewers to take away whatever they choose. “A lot of these have been bought by academics who find things in them,” she says.
She continues to experiment, challenging the notion that oil and water don’t mix. “Or do they? I tried it once, with watercolor and gold leaf, and liked it.”
“I have a strong feeling that every art form, whether ballet or writing, should have a classical training,” Neuwirth continues. “You need a basic understanding of drawing before you can do abstract art.” It is for this reason that she pairs classical architectural forms in collages with dancers, “to show that even modern dance has a classical foundation.”
When she’s not doing calisthenics, walking (“I go for walks while the paint dries”) and painting, Neuwirth is writing. She has produced three children’s books through a self publishing platform called Blurb. Each has fanciful line drawings and elegant prose.
She also devotes time to nurturing the bonds of family. Bebe’s brother, Peter, lives in California with his wife and son, and both sides of the family (Bebe is married to writer, director, and producer Chris Calkins) spend the holidays with the Neuwirths, when schedules permit. Mother and daughter speak frequently by phone and E-mail. They had a mother-daughter exhibit at the Rogue Gallery in New York a few years ago, featuring Sydney’s dancers and Bebe’s photographs, ceramic pots, and paintings made by dancing on canvas. Profits from the show went to Dancers’ Resource, as well as a donation of 90 watercolor paintings by Sydney.
“Bebe is so generous in sharing aspects of her career,” says her mother. “She invites us to openings and parties, and when she was touring with ‘Chorus Line’ we traveled with her and saw the show 16 times.”
It was the children’s idea that Sydney do the retrospective for her big birthday. In her eight decades, what has been the most important thing in her life? “Family,” she says without hesitation. “My children and my husband. I like to sit in my ‘power seat,’ listening to WWFM, surrounded by family pictures. It frees my mind, and it starts to flow as I’m surrounded by things I love.”
Although this may be her last big show — it is getting to be too much to do all the framing, she says — she will not stop painting.
Sydney Anne Neuwirth — Along the Continuum, Cranbury Station Gallery, 28 Palmer Square, Princeton, on view Friday, October 10, with a 6 to 9 p.m. reception, through Sunday, October 12. 609-921-0434 or www.kmmorolda.com.