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Clark Silva on Amsel, Leyendecker, and reading between the lines

I’m still eager to catch up on writing about some recent interviews done for the film. One example, filmed just a few weeks ago, was with Clark Silva.


Silva is a museum curator and art historian who produced a show last year, Figures, Poses, and Glances: The Coded Illustrations of J.C. Leyendecker. I could have kicked myself for not hearing about the exhibit while it was open. From my earliest research in Richard Amsel’s work and career, I always thought obvious parallels could be made between the two artists. It’s far more than the direct influence Leyendecker’s work had on Amsel's poster for The Sting; the lives of these two gay illustrators shared certain attributes, and their work helped define the commercial styles of their respective times.


My own personal interest in Amsel was reignited back in late 2007, when artist William Stout mentioned another exhibit on Leyendecker’s work on display in Fullerton. After I visited the gallery, I felt compelled to create a fan site about Amsel’s work. The rest is history.


What was unique about Silva’s show, however, was how it explored Leyendecker’s work through a sexualized lens. “Leyendecker was a gay illustrator at the turn of the century using gay imagery, gay coding, and gay culture to advertise and essentially create these ideas of what we equate with American pop culture,” Silva explained.


Whether or not the same could be said of Richard Amsel’s work is subject to debate, but it’s certainly a worthy topic of discussion. And why not? Artists and fans frequently cite Amsel’s sensitivity in capturing beauty within his portraits of women (particularly iconic women). Isn’t it fair to analyze male beauty as well? My documentary, after all, is not just a biography, but an academic analysis of an artist’s work.


“I think with…Indiana Jones in general, as we're starting to get into the eighties and we're getting away from maybe where Amsel is more comfortable – having men as a sort of focus of want or desire in the way that (Leyendecker’s) the Arrow Collar Man was for gay innocence of desire. But (Amsel) was advertising for straight people, so you still had to look cool and you still had to look exciting. … So to take kind of the spirit of what the Arrow Collar Man was for Leyendecker, he's doing that with Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones for the eighties; he is the sex symbol for gay fans who are now becoming more out as we leave the sixties and seventies, going into the eighties.”

Silva and I filmed the interview at my place, and beyond a faulty microphone that captured electronic "hiss" (which I then realized was my "backup" mic, and swapped it with a better one), the only real problem was when Gus, the all too friendly cat, wandered into view demanding attention and bellyrubs.

You may be excited to hear that Clark Silva and I have been actively discussing doing a retrospective show on Amsel’s art – the first such show within Southern California dedicated exclusively to the artist. With the film and book, there’s so much to take on, but I hope we can make it a reality.


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