Thinking Inside the Box
FOR 50 YEARS, ART HAS BEEN THE SECRET INSPIRATION BEHIND TONY CURTIS’ LIFE
At 81, Tony Curtis is defying convention. During a time when many of his living contemporaries have faded into the comfortable obscurity of retirement, this legend of the silver screen is arguably at the peak of his second—and in many ways, first—career as a celebrated painter and boxed assemblage maker.
“As children we grew up watching Dad paint,” daughter Jamie Lee Curtis announced at her father’s 80th birthday celebration in June 2005.“We did not realize that we grew up with a famous movie star.”
The same questioning and receptive mind that captures the subtle nuances of daily life and later incorporates them into his film roles has spent the last several decades storing sights and memories that now flower on his vivid, intensely-colored canvases and populate his cubed compositions.The glamour of the film world has left an indelible mark on his visual images; each film locale and co-star has provided Curtis with new inspiration for his artwork.
Demand for showings of his art keep Curtis constantly on the move. In May, the Carmel Art Festival in California celebrated “Tony Curtis Day”, honoring the artist in an enormously successful show at Gallerie Amsterdam. Shortly thereafter, Higgins Harte International Galleries in Lahaina, Maui held an equally successful exhibition in mid-June featuring Curtis’ work. Recently, Curtis’ art was accepted into the permanent collection of the new film and media wing of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
At his home in Nevada, Curtis’ studio is a snapshot of an artist in constant motion; a worktable, covered with paints, brushes and supplies, features cubbyholes filled with random objects yet to become part of one of his boxed creations. Shelves that line the walls of the studio are packed with dozens of his small dioramas preserved beneath glass that capture a moment or feeling in the life of this living legend.
Curtis’ home hosts a considerable collection of others’ art as well. A tapestry made from one of his paintings rests on an easel that belonged to Edward G. Robinson. On one wall hangs LeRoy Neiman’s 1961 painting, Matador; on another, an original water- color done for Curtis by Andy Warhol, whom Curtis says “changed the whole look of everything.” A Marc Chagall sits on an antique table alongside three Pablo Picassos and a Balthus.
From film to fine art
Throughout Curtis’ life, a sketchbook has never been very far away, whether in his bedroom as a child, on a submarine in the Navy, or on the set of a big Hollywood production. Whenever he was too limited in time or space to create boxes or to paint, he would draw.
Though he started with oil-based paints, Curtis switched to acrylics as soon as he discovered them.“Acrylics are an express subway, oils are a local,” he muses.
His paintings address a broad range of subjects; lush, pattern- filled, multi-colored still lifes are a personal favorite. Heavy influences—from Picasso to Matisse—can be inferred, often with a single glance.
For the most part, Curtis is self-taught. He was invited to study with Jan Stussy at the University of California, Los Angeles and, though Curtis claims he was already “an old dog” by then, he did pick up a few new tricks.“He showed me perspective and dis- tance,” elaborates Curtis.
A major influence on Curtis was the late surrealist Salvador Dalí.The unique approach and rare talent that Dalí exhibited in all facets of his career captivated him.“He projected himself into the future,” the actor-artist says.“That’s what makes his paintings so desirable to me. I don’t think there’s as good an artist out there today.”
The inherent vibrancy and vigor captured in Curtis’ paintings belie a life of pain, heartache and loss. Curtis’ life story is one of tragedy as well as triumph.
He admits that he frequently thinks of lost family and friends; it is obvious his works share an emotional connection to life events not long forgotten. Even as an adolescent, he reveals he used his art as a means of emotional catharsis.
“I started doing these boxes to calm myself,” Curtis explains. “I would get so frustrated and angry, putting up with all of the madness of other people’s behavior and the inequities that I saw around me.”
Curtis was born in The Bronx, NY, as Bernard Schwartz, to Hungarian Jewish immigrants. His father, Emanuel, was a tailor; his mother, Helen, was a homemaker.
“Having been raised in a Hungarian-speaking home, I had dif- ficulty making myself understood as a child,” he confides.“Art was a great outlet for my frustration—it is a universal language.”
Curtis’ family moved around quite a bit when he was a child and every time they moved, he’d throw items he’d collected, such as skate keys or baseballs, into shoeboxes and cigar boxes.“That’s how my assemblages started,” the actor-artist explains.
It’s easy to try to search for the meaning in the myriad boxes on display in Curtis’ studio. At first, he denies that they contain any reflections of himself, saying he prefers to “let objects speak for themselves.” However, after showing a few more boxes and talking about their meanings in detail, Curtis reveals otherwise.
“All have a little sense of reality,” he mentions.
He shows one of the boxes that he created during the Vietnam conflict; in it is a picture of a man being drawn apart by horses. Curtis explains that the horses represent not only the divided Vietnam, but more.
“It’s a symbol of what war does to all of us,” he confesses.
Connecting through art
Curtis recently taught box-making classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In these classes, he told students about Joseph Cornell, a shy, eccentric box artist who dedicated much of his life to caring for his cerebral palsy-afflicted brother, Robert. In particular, he shared with them the story of how Cornell created a special box for his brother, a delicate work that contained a “thimble forest” within, seen through a skylight-like opening.
“He created a whole sense of art out of his love for his brother,” Curtis explains, a tiny smile growing on his face.
The students, inspired by the story, recreated Cornell’s box as a gift for Curtis, who was greatly moved by their gesture of thanks. What a rare privilege for students to meet and learn from one of this generation’s greatest actors and artists.