City Paper is not for tourists
Pinup collector Art Amsie remembers the calendar girls of yesterday at his National Glamour Archives.
The view of the Potomac from Art Amsie’s high-rise condo in Old Town Alexandria, home of the National Glamour Archives, is spectacular, but I don’t really notice. My eyes are glued to the wall of original pinup paintings rendered for calendars during the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s by artists such as Gil Elvgren, Ed Runci, Fritz Willis, Joyce Ballantyne, Alberto Vargas, and Ed D’Ancona. The subjects are all women with killer curves, dressed in bright, form-enhancing clothes. These days, you see naughtier stuff in the Victoria’s Secret catalog, on television, and even in mainstream magazines, but back in the day, cheap reproductions of these paintings defined a male’s private domain in the garage, the den, or the workshop. “Pinups transcend mere eroticism,” Amsie says, by way of offering a definition. “They may be interpreted as being subtly erotic. They’re aesthetically arousing.”
Amsie’s always ready to extemporize on his favorite subject, even when we’re just setting up a phone interview. “This whole concept of the pinup is a very dynamic thing,” Amsie begins without warning. “Sex has been fundamental since the dawn of mankind. In the field of sex, there’s all sorts of grades, classes, and levels of respectability. Sex is a part of marriage, to have children. Sex is used for entertainmentthat’s the guys who are barhopping. A well-delivered, well-executed pinup illustration is quite acceptable, and it reflects mankind in its entirety. If it’s done coarsely, it’s unacceptable. The pinup calls to mind the togetherness of man and woman.”
It’s necessary, then, to distinguish pinups from other erotica. “Men don’t masturbate to pinups,” Amsie insists. “I’m convinced that the pinup is not pornography. It’s become a crusade for me. I want the pinup to be appreciated as a work of artthe way it should be. I’m an evangelist for pinups; I preach the gospel of pinups.”
A dynamic septuagenarian, Amsie is from another timea time when, he says, “women [did] things to make themselves attractive, to interest someone.” At our first meeting, he settles into his chair, chomping a cigar and regaling me with anecdotes about being “the only person in the world who knew and was friends with” the big three of pinup culture: cartoonist Bill Ward, painter Elvgren, and model Bettie Page. Amsie is king of his cluttered bachelor pad, a weekend HQ he shares with his 13-year-old son. Amsie’s collection of original pinup art fills one large wall. You can buy one for as little as two grand, but for an Elvgren”the crème de la crème,” Amsie saysprices start at $25,000. During the week, Amsie keeps house in West Virginia, where his son goes to school. But here in the home he established years ago as an engineer and bookstore proprietor, Amsie can visit his paintings, relish city life, and relive past glories for visitorsespecially his relationship with Page.
As a photographer’s model, Nashville, Tenn., native Page reigned over the ’50s pinup scene. Her dark bangs and pleasant smile lent an aura of innocence to all of her pictures, softening even the most extreme fetish scenes smut photographer and peddler Irving Klaw could conjure. Spankings, bondage and discipline, leatherPage frolicked through it all, managing to look as if she were having the time of her life. If the titillation seems tame by today’s standardsKlaw often dressed her in two or three pairs of underwear to conceal telltale pubic hair and thus dodge censorshipthe power of her image burns ever brightly.
Page’s first modeling work was posing for camera clubs, groups of amateur photographers, like Amsie, who would go out together on organized weekend excursions to expose a little filmand a little flesh. In 1956 and 1957, Amsie produced some of the greatest camera-club images of Page ever made. He distinguishes his efforts as a photographer from those of the “snapshooters” in the world, boiling his skill down to one formula: “The magic word C: composition.” It might have helped that he was perfectly willing to humble himself for a good shot, toobut only when working with amateur models. “I’d have to tell the girls what pose I wanted,” he says. “Sometimes I’d get down and do the pose myself: ‘Kneel down and sit back on your heels, hold your hands up, and do this….’”
And then there was Page. “Posing for me, she sparkled, she effervesced, she scintillated, she glowed, she radiated,” Amsie effuses. “When I wanted a particular pose, she knew inherently what type I would want. She was so cooperative, it was incredible.” In other words, Page understood intuitively Amsie’s formula for the perfect pinup: “pose, clothes, and expression.” Amsie recites this mantra as if relishing a good whiskey, rolling each word carefully over his tongue.
Amsie’s photographic legacy may come down to two pictures he produced almost by accident, at the end of a day of shooting, with a couple of frames left on a roll of film he just wanted to finish.
“It’s only in retrospect that I realized that, of all the other recent photographs, there are no other candids of Bettie,” Amsie says. “Talk about falling into dumb luck. And it turns out that’s the most popular. I’ve sold hundreds of that picture where she’s holding her hands up and her blouse is blowing open.”
And there she is, the girl next door, with a silk scarf tied around her head. Her black bangs cover her forehead; the smile is genuine; her blue eyes are friendly. Somehow, the top two or three buttons of her red polka-dot blouse never got fastened, and a plain white bra shows itself to the camera. A woman in cat-eye glasses sitting behind Page looks over to see what’s up.
“When I had the second shot,” Amsie continues, “I said, ‘Let’s do something funny. Take this fender and act like it’s a great big sausage, or a submarine sandwich. Make like you’re taking a bite out of it.’” This time, Page’s blouse is chastely fastened. Her blue jeans are rolled up to just below the knee, and her red fingernail polish matches her top. Her open mouth hangs over a tubular plastic buoy. It’s a silly shot, but it captures both the high spirits Page brought to her professional work and the country girl behind the scenes. “Even a blind pig will find an apple,” Amsie notes, for once showing some self-deprecation.
Both photos have made it into most books about Page’s life, and they made the cover of Betty Page: Private Girl, a collection of “spicy music” played by a no-name strip-club band and released by Germany’s Normal Records. The deluxe Digipak includes a generous portfolio of classic Page images. The label didn’t pay Amsie for his work. (“I don’t need the money,” he says dismissively.) Instead, he took copies of the disc to sell through his archives.
Among his other accomplishmentsmaking a killing on the stock market and achieving National Master rank in tournament bridgeAmsie claims to have started a pinup renaissance when he opened his store, the Girl Whirl, on King Street in Alexandria. It was 1976, “the height of the pornographic era,” Amsie remembers. The Washington Post ran an article on the place in which a much younger Amsie boasted, “I stand alone, one with banner unfurled, against a tide of pornography, trying to bring Americans back to where they enjoyed beauty.” Amsie remarks now that he’s “patronizing the early Art Amsie” by quoting himself, but his earlier ambition and hubris are clear. “I wanted to be the leader of a movement,” he says now.
Amsie called his shop the Girl Whirl “because people used to walk in and whirl around. They did a 360, because it was all over the wallsthe paintings and illustrations and calendars.” Mostly, he sold low-cost items, but occasionally someone bought one of the paintings he’d begun purchasing at trade shows and auctions. Although he’d been a collector of pinup photos and magazines since age 13, for years Amsie hadn’t purchased any paintings. But once he started, hundreds passed through his hands.
Amsie ran the Girl Whirl until 1983, when rising rents drove him out of retail, at which point he established the National Glamour Archives as a home-based gallery to showand sometimes sellitems from his collection. Today, Amsie estimates, he owns 150 original cartoons Ward rendered for the digest-sized girlie rags of the ’50s and ’60s, plus enough cartoons by others to bring his collection of drawings to 200. And Amsie has boxes of classic pinup ephemera, including cards, magazines, stereo slides, and photosincluding originals of Page in bondage that he bought at Klaw’s shop. Of his 100 or so paintings, only the ones for sale are currently on display. Also on offer are prints of Amsie’s own Page shots and some Klaw pictures.
Amsie defines the archives as “a museum of classical pinup and glamour illustrations holding the embodiment of feminine attraction. And a little bit of really innocent voyeurism, along with some humor.” But there’s really no museum. And it’s not “national” at all, as far as public viewing goes, because you need an appointment to get in, although Amsie does get orders from all over the world through his Web site. By his own admission, the National Glamour Archives exists to do justice to his collection: “This is for the glorification of Art Amsie,” he says impishly. “This is a self-fulfilling effort.”
Sometime in the mid ’70s, Amsie became drinking buddies with master pinup painter Elvgren. “I’ve been a fan of his for 62 years,” Amsie crows. “That’s not older than youthat’s older than your father!” To Amsie’s mind, Elvgren created the iconic pinup image: hyperreal, soft-focus cuties who didn’t wear clothes so much as accessories that enhanced their physical charms without revealing them. “The women were not erotic; they were as close to Shirley Temple as you can get in a mature atmosphere,” Amsie says. “They were sexy, but they were endearing, huggable, and sweet.” Elvgren’s prodigious output for Brown & Bigelow calendars helped create a new art form, as Amsie tells it.
“They didn’t have pinups before the 20th century,” he lectures. “All paintings were either classical or pornographic. Whether you take the Kama Sutra, or some of the Japanese woodcuts showing orgies, things like that. Or you would have Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, or Aphrodite, or Nike. Then this whole concept of teasing and titillating came along.” Amsie breaks off; he just can’t resist adding, “Well, women have always teased men, haven’t they?”CP
For more information on the National Glamour Archives call (703) 836-3462 or visit http://hometown.aol.com/amsiea/index.html.