POP-CULTURE fanatics, take note: The University of the Arts has an exhibit that will rock your world.

Lucille Ball, Katharine Hepburn, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" - illustrator Richard Amsel produced iconic images of these Hollywood classics and countless others during the '70s and '80s that were seen by millions of TV and film fans on magazine covers and movie posters.

Now Amsel's work - lively, intimate and often iconic portraits, artwork and sketches - will be exhibited for the first time in "Richard Amsel: A Retrospective" at his alma mater, the University of the Arts (known as the Philadelphia College of Art when he graduated in 1969).

The Amsel exhibit, designed by Hollywood set designer Joe Stewart, will feature a "Raiders"-themed cave and a nook for TV Guide covers. It opens April 16 at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery.

The Philadelphia native's artwork is part of the 500-piece Richard Amsel Illustration Collection that was donated to UArts by Amsel's friend Dorian Hannaway in December 2005. The works will be conserved and catalogued by the university for research and as a teaching resource.

Amsel won't be there to see his work recognized. He died of AIDS in 1985, 16 years after he graduated from the school and weeks before his 38th birthday.

The Wynnewood-raised artist, whose father owned Larry's Toy Store on Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore, was prolific in his short life, working even in his final days.

Amsel's last TV Guide cover - his 37th, a record for the magazine - was published three weeks before his death. At the time, the Lower Merion High School graduate was working on his next commission, "Jewel of the Nile," the sequel to the 1984 Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner hit "Romancing the Stone."

"He had a sense of theatricality and beauty that was unparalleled," said Hannaway, a Norristown High School graduate who met Amsel in New York City in 1974.

Hannaway, now Los Angeles-based, held most of the collection in a drawer underneath her bed for 16 years before she began to donate the works to the school.

Amsel's work may be familiar to the discerning eye, but his name and well-known signature have remained relatively unnoticed outside certain artistic circles. His alma mater, friends and devotees expect that to change with this much-anticipated exhibit, four years in the making.

"In some ways this is an introduction to Richard Amsel, but he needs no introduction," said Eugene A. Bolt Jr., associate director of the university's Office of Development. Visitors to the retrospective will "recognize so many of the pieces and say, 'I had no idea this is who did this.' "

By all accounts, Amsel was born with a gift and focused on it from a young age. The prodigy painted, drew, sketched, designed and played with colors. When he was just 15, his window designs for his father's toy store won an award for best window in Ardmore, Hannaway said.

Amsel submitted his interpretation of "Hello Dolly!" to film studio 20th Century Fox in 1969 for a nationwide poster contest. And won.

He was 21 and still a Philadelphia College of Art student.

The colorful, flowery image, featuring the movie's leads Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, invokes one of Amsel's influences, the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt.

Winning the competition gave Amsel a leg up as he arrived in New York with a movie poster in his portfolio. Hannaway said Amsel had a doggedness that paid off in consistent work.

Jerry Alten, TV Guide's former art director, was hooked.

He first used Amsel's work inside the magazine, then gave him a cover in 1972, a portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Alten's 2008 book, "The Art of TV Guide: Half a Century of Great Art from the World's Greatest Artists," features Amsel's work.

"He had a nice artistic style but also had an ability to capture the image of the celebrity that someone had to recognize immediately," said Alten, of Narberth.

As a result, Amsel left an indelible stamp on pop culture in music, television and movies.

Besides Klimt, Amsel's influences included J.C. Leyendecker, an early 20th-century artist known for his Saturday Evening Post covers and advertisements, and Bob Peak, considered by many as the father of the modern movie poster.

Amsel's movie-poster illustration for 1973's "The Sting," featuring Robert Redford and Paul Newman, clearly draws on Leyendecker postures and the artist's use of circles and parallel bars.

Amsel also loved the art of Disney and drew upon it for his "Raiders" posters, said Hannaway, noting that a 1981 movie poster hangs in "Raiders" director Steven Spielberg's office.

Images of textured stone behind actor Harrison Ford are "classic Disney" from early animation films such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Pinocchio," Hannaway said.

"But as it goes forward, you can see how he develops his own style," she said.

Illustrator David Byrd, Amsel's friend and contemporary, saw that style develop over many years. The two became friends after Amsel moved to New York. They won a Grammy in 1974 as two of 10 illustrators working on insert art for a London Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Choir release of the Who's "Tommy."

His friend's illustration style "has a completely natural quality. . . . It doesn't look studied," recalled Byrd, himself the creator of such iconic Broadway posters as "Godspell" and "Follies."

"And that is part of his genius. He was able to animate the famous people that he drew looking like themselves," Byrd said. "He was a savant with his drawings, truly a master craftsman. That's why he was able to grasp the essence of how these celebrities looked." *

"Richard Amsel: A Retrospective," April 16-May 14, University of the Arts, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery, 333 S. Broad St., 215-717-6480 or www.uarts.edu.