There’s less than a month to go before her next solo show opens, and Sylvia Netzer is anxious. It’s a cheerful anxiety, one that bubbles over into nervous energy and words the moment she opens the door to her high-ceilinged Manhattan studio and warmly welcomes me in. Netzer, who has been working with sculpture since the early ’80s, began the drawings as a way of visualizing how to place her sculptures for a show, but when a friend saw them and said there was something to them independent of their subjects—it gave Netzer a bold idea: she was going to put together her very first show composed, not of sculpture and figures, but of drawings.
Letting The Pencil Guide
“It’s really been fun—and stressful. I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about doing a show that’s…different from what I do.” She gestures at the long white sheets of paper draping the room like mismatched wallpaper. “I have to trim them,” she says. “I just printed them out the other day. I’m a little anxious about how they’re going to look singly. And I’m really obsessing about painting the walls in the gallery.” She waves a fan of paint swatches and shuffles through them, “I think the first three will be on a short wall, and I’m going to do this light blue-grey there. And the others will be on this sort of yellow-orange.”
The techniques she’s using to make these drawings—mark-making techniques like wax resists, rubbings, stamping and printmaking—aren’t exactly new to her. “I used to teach a course in early childhood education, and it’s fun to use these techniques that I’ve never used, but that I’ve taught.” She’s taught at the City College of New York for over 20 years, and before that had stints with students much younger and much older. Her teaching approach—perhaps not surprising in a sculptor—is, first and foremost, hands-on: “I’m such a yenta, it’s really hard for me not to go around and talk to them.” Education is something she’s passionate for, which she talks about with great warmth and ease.
She seems at ease, in fact, when it comes to most things—conversation moves without break from education to her childhood camp days in the Poconos with other children of Holocaust survivors to her romantic life to body image. Netzer talks openly about lifelong struggles with obesity and has confronted it head-on with sculpture. “I had a friend who couldn’t even stay in the gallery,” she says, talking about one of her shows that sunk its teeth into body image. “It made her anxious to be around the figurines. She’s obsessed with wanting to be tall, skinny, and blond. I mean, get used to it. You’re practically seventy. We’re not going to be tall, skinny, and blond.” This openness and confidence makes her nervousness about her drawings stick out more: incongruous, a nick on a smooth surface.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges of being a kid: how many new things the world demands you master all at once. You’re never just learning how to tie your shoe. You’re also grappling with the intricacies of hand-eye coordination, balance, and the conceptual underpinnings of knot-tying, none of which you’ve exactly mastered yet.
When an adult learns something new, it’s usually just one thing at a time. But as a clay sculptor compiling a collection of large-scale drawings and preparing to show them, it strikes me that Netzer is forcing herself to learn a lot all at once: technique, how to arrange, present, frame the work—her own style in two dimensions.
Netzer is a self-identified lifelong learner, though, and as much as she professes insecurity about the drawings, I think she’s enjoying this process of having to learn many things and flex many untested muscles simultaneously. And, after all, her drawings are still grounded in her sculpting. Her series of drawings began as sketches of her ceramics work but evolved into pieces of their own: abstracted views from many angles of her sculptures in repeating strings that look like unraveling DNA or geometric/mathematical series (much of her sculpture, too, is influenced by biology and mathematics).
Despite a fascination with science that stems from childhood and survived – even thrived – during her years at the Bronx High School of Science, Netzer tells me, “I knew from the time I was young that I wanted to be an artist and I remember being on a bus going up to The Cloisters, and my aunt said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ which is not really the most brilliant question for a seven-year-old, and I said, ‘I want to be an artist,’ and she said (this was all in German, by the way), ‘Well, then you need to have a day job.’”
“I’m a lifelong learner. I’m very grateful that I’m curious.” This is at the root of why she’s a passionate teacher, too: “It’s my greatest wish that students end up being curious, and want to find out about things.” Her curiosity and sense of adventure in her own work has to be at least as motivating as her teaching: it’s infectious. The drawings surrounding us in her studio feel unfinished and therefore alive, pulsing with possibility.
The studio, which has been her home base for over two decades, is in a building whose owner plans to sell it next year. So Netzer will be looking for a fresh canvas. Though she’s not thrilled to be moving, I have a sneaking suspicion she’ll adapt to her next spot just fine. She’s good at learning new things.
Article by Cory Tamler