Work by Indiana Jones illustrator in new gallery show

    A Philadelphia-area artist who became a successful commercial illustrator now has a gallery show over 20 years after his death. The work of Richard Amsel is on display at the University of the Arts. It’s a snapshot of pop culture from the ’70s and ’80s. His work shows how far commercial art has come, and what it has left behind.

    A Philadelphia-area artist who became a successful commercial illustrator now has a gallery show over 20 years after his death. The work of Richard Amsel is on display at the University of the Arts. It’s a snapshot of pop culture from the ’70s and ’80s. His work shows how far commercial art has come, and what it has left behind.

    Listen:
    [audio: 090416pcposter.mp3]

    At the turn of the century we had Howard Pyle making lush color illustrations for boy’s adventure stories. In the 1940s we had Norman Rockwell painting Americana on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Mark Tocchet is the head of the illustration department at the University of the Arts. He says in the 1970s it was Richard Amsel who drew portraits of the stars for TV Guide.

    090416amsel4Tocchet: It was a TV generation. We were looking at celebrities in a way we never looked at them before. They meant more at that time than they had previously.

    Richard Amsel – the name may not ring a bell – but you probably had his drawings on your coffee table. Curator Dorian Hannaway says that for a guy drawing pop culture, there was no better place to be at the time than TV Guide.

    Hannaway: It had an impact that doesn’t exist today with that publication. It was the only place to go for your TV information, and it was on every coffee table. When he had a TV Guide cover everybody saw it, and it was on every coffee table. It was in 20 million homes.

    Hannaway was a close friend of Amsel from their meeting in New York in the early ’70s to when he died of AIDS complications in 1985. The graduate of Lower Merion High School and later the University of the Arts eventually went Hollywood, creating what might be his most famous image – the poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    090416amsel2Tim Gough, illustrator: The Indiana Jones poster – I’m a fan of that style of poster art.

    When the 28-year-old Gough first saw the image of Harrison Ford wielding a whip as Indiana Jones he could see the artist’s hand behind the poster.

    Gough: If you look closely you can see he uses colored pencil. The pencil from the drawing shows through the painting – you can see the hand-drawn quality of it.

    090416amsel1The exhibition space at the University of the Arts is decorated to mimic a cave from the movie set of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Placed inside are working drawings of the poster along with movie merchandise. Amsel even designed the famous font of the title – that sweeping block lettering – leaning from left to right, as if moving forward – that is now synonymous with adventure.

    Hannaway: These things have a life and history that people associate with. When you see Raiders lettering – it was used in Beverley Hills Chihuahua, it’s everything.

    At this point, Hannaway was interrupted by her cell phone with a ring tone that is John Williams’ score to Raiders.

    But it’s not 1985 anymore. After Amsel died, computers largely took over commercial illustration. Most commercial images came from manipulated photographs. Professor Tocchet says movie studios don’t let artists have that much control over the final image of the poster.

    Tocchet: For the Batman movie they made 15 or 20 different posters all made for different audiences, all done digitally with stills. But it’s not quite the same. They were taking a leap of faith with an artist, which is what you need to do when you want something great. They would be able to capture something that was bigger than a photograph.

    That may be true in movie posters, but artist Tim Gough says drawing is now making a comeback. His day job is the art director of Philadelphia Weekly.

    Gough: When I was in school they were saying illustration was dead. Now there’s a huge resurgence of commercial illustration. As an art director I get tons of mail from students looking for work.

    Gough says Amsel’s style would not get him magazine covers and movie posters today. But like any good commercial artist, he would have changed with the times.

    More information:
    The work of Richard Amsel is now on display in the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts

    Additional images:

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