Tony Curtis: Center Stage as an Artist

Times Staff Writer

So he can act. But can he paint ?

Yes, was the consensus at the first Los Angeles exhibition of works by Tony Curtis.

The sixtysomething, silver-haired Curtis drew a sizable crowd to the Beverly Hilton on Saturday night for a reception and viewing of his extensive collection of acrylics, pen and ink drawings and sketches, most done at his home in Hawaii.

If his name was the draw, most were pleasantly surprised by Curtis' canvases.

"This is top grade," said a fellow painter who said his name was "Ellis--first and last. I paint in Europe, in Monte Carlo. Portraits mostly. And I'm surprised. He's very good--for a movie star. Henry Fonda was very good too, but he had a different style. Photographic. Curtis follows in the tradition of Matisse and Van Gogh," he said, pronouncing the artist's name Van Hoch , with throat-clearing emphasis.

Hugged by Friends

But the nucleus of this party was Curtis, who was dogged by camera crews and hugged and congratulated by friends all night.

He couldn't have been happier had he just won an Academy Award. Curtis chatted with Walter Matthau, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kirk Douglas, greeted strangers with, "Hi, I'm Tony," and occasionally pulled a reporter aside to try to explain his artist's philosophy.

"When I paint, I don't paint shapes, I paint colors. The most difficult thing to do is verbalize a painting. When I start painting, I have no idea what I'm going to do. The first color I use--that tells me where the painting is going. It paints itself, and the painting tells me when it's finished. It's almost as if it does it for me."

He starts painting at 6 a.m., finishing at 11 a.m. when the Hawaii sun becomes too harsh. "I wear my Picasso hat and Matisse shorts and my Arnold Schwarzenegger tank top and I paint!"

His influences, he explained, include include Picasso, Matisse and Balthus. "But they're not dead to me," he explained. "When I look at their work, it's as if they just left the canvas."

Filling out the crowd (some guests dressed in tuxedos and ball gowns) were Marvin and Barbara Davis, George Schlatter, Cornel Wilde, Gary Collins and Mary Ann Mobley, Jackie Collins and Oscar Lerman, Mark Rydell, Berry Gordy, Suzanne de Passe, Alana Stewart and Gloria DeHaven.

"I've wanted to see his work," said actress Theresa Russell, who was searching for change for a dollar. "I did the film 'Insignificance' with Tony, and I had seen his work in magazines, but never in person. I love the colors. The paintings seem so free--he seems totally unintimidated by an empty canvas."

Curtis' daughter Jamie Lee raced from one end of the room to another to point out the paintings she liked best. One was titled "First Bouquet," a still life of flowers done in sunny blues and yellows--common color themes in Curtis' works.

"But these are all new," she said. "I haven't seen them before. He paints in Hawaii, and I live here."

Had he ever done a portrait of her?

"Yes. I'll show it to you," she said, gliding through the crowd while grabbing a shrimp and dipping it in cocktail sauce.

"He did this in 1972," she said, arriving at the portrait. "You see, I have a crooked mouth. And no one ever acknowledged it. Only my dad would do that."

But is he taken seriously as an artist as well as an actor?

"People tend to take actors not seriously at anything," she said. "Politics, writing. . . . To have people praise his work is a real thrill."

Hosting the party were literary agent Irving Lazar and his wife, Mary, who already own a Curtis or two.

"There were a lot of people from Europe here buying," said Lazar in between greeting guests.

Collectors Buy

By 8 p.m., collectors had bought up more than $1 million of the paintings, some priced in the five figures, according to William Mett of Center Art Galleries-Hawaii, which exclusively represents Curtis worldwide. "There are collectors here from 17 nations," he said.

The gallery also represents Anthony Quinn, Red Skelton and Margaret Keane, "who does those wondrous wide-eyed animals and children," Mett said.

Curtis says he has no trouble parting with his works; "I love the idea of selling them. They're not hard to part with. I never give them personalities. Jean Renoir was a friend of mine. And he once told me that the meaning comes after the work. That struck a chord in me. I just paint them. And I don't even care if people like them or not--If I like it, that's what matters. I paint for myself."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World