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Memories in a Box : Tony Curtis Has Preserved His Life Under Glass

February 22, 1987|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles writer.

Tony Curtis has always been a compulsive drawer of pictures. He thinks of them as his little Polaroids of the heart. He can look at a sketch he made 30 years ago and remember everything about the room, everything about the way he felt that hour.

Tony Curtis is also a pack rat. Boots, hats, old letters, walking sticks, you name it, he's got a pile of it stashed somewhere.

On occasion, the artist and the pack rat collide. Then Curtis builds a box. For 46 of his 61 years, he has been constructing mysterious little assemblages inside found containers--a small crate, perhaps, or an old silverware drawer. The dreamy effluvia he arranges become frozen set pieces under glass.

"Not an hour of any day goes by that I'm not seeing something to use," he said as he flipped through some completed boxes that looked like a stack of medicine chests in the corner. They recalled the collages of the late Joseph Cornell. "I've got boxes that are 4 1/2 years old that are not finished yet. I know one day I'm going to come across that last object and, 'Oh, that's it!' That's why you see a lot of them don't have glass on them.

"I'm on the verge of finishing a couple. I find myself raging through these looking for some clue, as if something's going to spring out at me and say, 'Aha!' "

A substantial portion of the Curtis collection was in various piles all around Honolulu. He had come to Hawaii to set up temporary shop in a friend's penthouse. The actor, on sabbatical from Los Angeles, was not entirely at ease in Polynesia. His paintings and boxes were being catalogued for an exhibition, and he was having to look at his creations within a formal context. But with all that new attention and all the intense tropical atmosphere blowing in from paradise, Curtis had in recent weeks been painting like a madman. His canvases were startling, Van Gogh-like still lifes, thick with colors and thundering contrasts.

Curtis looked the part of the artist with his baggy white shorts and blouse and white shock of hair. It appeared as though the Gauguin in him was coming out.

"No," he corrected, grinning famously, "it's the Schwartz in me coming out." Schwartz as in Bernie Schwartz, the tailor's son from the Bronx, reconstructed into Tony Curtis, matinee idol. The veteran of more than a hundred movies who a few years ago found himself bent up with drugs. The guy who got sober, who braced himself with a series of art classes at UCLA, who remade himself yet again as the painter, the happy collector of stuff.

"I feel as vulnerable now as when I first started in the movies," he said. "I'll show you some early boxes, some from around 1947." He charged into the pile. "That's before I got into movies. I've got a whole slew of them somewhere yet. They've got to be resurrected and cleaned out. I can't tell you how much happier I am now with the stuff that is coming out of storage." Each completed box stood on its own, like a short story.

He wishes he had a cigar box of memories for every day of his life. "Let's see," he pretended, bringing down an imaginary box from the wall, " '1936, Summer of,' what would that be like? Ah, the stub of a pencil, a photograph of a nude woman, some coins, maybe a jack and a ball. If I had that palette, I'd take a piece from one, a piece from another, and make a box. And I think that's what I'm doing."

In one box was the striking image of an ancient clock mainspring being gripped by a fading plaster hand. "That's from a statue," Curtis said dismissively. "That's a little obvious, a hand stopping a clock: Silence. Once in a while I get a little theatrical.

"I like not knowing where it's going--that's what makes it exciting. It's like that open city, where there are no boundaries. Of course, there is the edge of the canvas, but I'm not sure if that's a boundary."

Old snapshots of Curtis figure in some boxes, set off by shot glasses, rosary beads or golf balls. One assemblage holds an aged slice of paper on which is delicately written: "--is complete and you--". "That's from an old letter," Curtis said, giggling. "I did a whole slew of old letters I found. I don't know why that breaks me up, but it does. It's difficult for me to articulate what they're about. I try to take unrelated objects and give them some inner relationship. They capture to me something childlike. They carry with them the emotions of their times--like a baseball card. I try to get objects that defy that time barrier. A photograph of your mother or your brother is time- less.

"Sometimes I'll find a box that'll start it, sometimes an object, sometimes a photograph. Or a picture in a magazine that I like. This one here. . . ." He held up a magazine page, a portrait of a man, crumpled it into a ball, and then smoothed it out. He spent a moment arranging it in a small wood crate. He set it down just so and looked at it. The wrinkled face in the box suddenly acquired some presence. It looked like the start of something.

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