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Revering the art: The collectors (Part 1)

"I love that they cast Tina Turner in the movie," Joel Ulster says. "She's tougher and stronger than Mel Gibson. He's just got a big mouth."

It's hard for me, at this stage, to know exactly how much I'll be able to cover in the final cut of the documentary. Certainly peoples' personal remembrances of Richard Amsel, and comments from other artists will remain the focus. But in keeping with the film's tagline, other themes I hope to address concern how the art of the illustrated movie poster has become lost over the years.

For Amsel's work, this sense of loss is both figurative and literal, as most of his personal collection was sold, given away, or even stolen outright following his death. One of the film's final chapters will explore the details of what happened.

There's a bittersweet aspect to this, however, as Amsel's work is still revered and cherished by many fans. I've managed to track down a number of originals over the years, and had discussions with several people who own some of the artist's most famous pieces.

MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME was Amsel's last completed movie poster, and Joel Ulster obtained it at the 1987 Christie's auction. The price he paid, minus taxes and fees: $7,700. With inflation, the full auction price would equate to roughly $20,000 in today's dollars.

"It was a lot of money (back then). I don't think we ever bought anything for that amount."

Ulster was the last interview I conducted during my frenetic visit to NYC in April. We had been chatting online for years, so it was lovely to finally meet him in person.

His home was a sprawling but inviting apartment on Broadway -- the kind of place I'd dream of having, with polished cherry wood paneled walls, windowsills donned with colorful plants, and assorted art and sculptures scattered about. I have no idea just how much a home like this must cost; I was intimidated enough by the fifty bucks I spent parking around the corner for a mere three hours. But Joel and his husband Michael were gracious hosts, and kindly treated me to a delicious lunch at a nearby eatery.

Ulster never met Richard Amsel, but he admired his work for many years. When he heard of the Christie's auction, he made it a priority to go. "I think there was a reasonable turnout at the auction," he said.

Regarding MAD MAX, he added: "It was sad buying it, as well. We were thrilled to have it, because it was beautiful and we admired his work, but it was sad buying it because of the circumstances. And you could see his writing on the back of it. ... He never intended it to be sold as art, and it was sad that it was sold this way."

Ulster recalled being in New York throughout the 1970s and 80s, and attended some stage performances held at The Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel, where Bette Midler got her start. He also recalled the quick and dramatic rise of AIDS in the city.

"It was a terrible time. When we bought (the art) in '87, (AIDS) was everywhere. ...

"The whole gay scene in New York was something like Fantasyland, I'm sure for all the participants. And then once AIDS started it was devastating because you could see it everywhere. We were on Fire Island for the summers, and people there were, like, walking -- walking ghosts. People were marked. There was facial wasting everywhere, and there were no drugs to disguise it. ... You'd cry seeing people, and you'd know who was getting sick right away. People disappeared. ... And Reagan wouldn't even say the word -- he wouldn't say the word 'AIDS'."

I'm always amazed at seeing Amsel's work in person. Usually poster reproductions hide the warts and flaws of the original art from which they were made, but Amsel's work was the opposite. All the colors and details are flawless in comparison, and seeing the originals is like seeing the art for the first time.

Very special thanks to Joel Ulster and Michael Hertzman for their time and generousity.

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