© Gemeentemuseum Helmond / Estate
of James Avati, USA
sketches, photographs, paperbacks, film: a retrospective
2005 - 15 January 2006
From October 9, 2005 thru January 15, 2006, the Helmond Municipal
Museum presents the first museum retrospective ever of the work of
Avati. He created attractive cover designs for the novels of
authors of world literature like Steinbeck, Faulkner, Salinger,
Caldwell and Moravia. Thanks to the unique combination of his
personality and his talent as a painter, James Avati is generally
viewed as the best painter of paperback covers of the second half
of the twentieth century.
The exhibition, entitled ‘James Avati: King of Paperbacks’,
presents approximately 90 paintings, 20 sketches, 50 black and
white photographs, 150 paperbacks and a video documentary.
In 1950s’ America, during the so-called "paperback
revolution", literary novels were sold in ‘softcover’
editions and had a circulation of millions. This way real
literature reached a new audience, formerly not accustomed to
reading novels. Realistic cover illustrations were used to attract
the audience’s attention. Avati was the first and also the best
of these paperback illustrators. Not surprisingly, his colleagues
called him the "King of the Paperbacks".
Over the past 25 years many of Avati’s original paintings have
been rescued from the vaults of American publishing firms like
Signet, Avon, Dell and Bantam. Today many of these paintings are
considered real art.
In the 1950s James Avati primarily worked for the New American
Library, the publisher of Signet Books, cheap reprints of quality
literature for a mass audience. Like no other James Avati managed
to capture the essence of a literary story ('the guts of the
story') in his cover paintings. This way the imagery of Avati
became an essential element of the mass culture of that era.
The images of Avati are narratives rather than paintings; they are
not a literal illustration of the text, but more like a visual
summary. Avati's figures are recognizable individuals brought
together in intimate situations. We pay attention to their
expressions, poses and gestures, to the way they are dressed, the
mess on the couch, the leftovers, the slum which is visible
through the window; the story is present in all these elements.
The paintings have the same depth as the literary stories they are
wrapped around. The leading characters are the funny farm workers
from the work of Erskine Caldwell, or the impoverished nobility of
William Faulkner, or the Irish immigrants in the slums of Chicago
as portrayed by James Farrell. In addition, the covers of Avati
are the first mass-produced depictions of the life of black
Americans, of homosexuality, impotentence, adultery and postcoital
depression. In many of the pictures the tension between a man and
a woman is almost tangible. Each of Avati’s paintings is
permeated with his dreams, desires and emotions.
Avati paints people of flesh and blood, people we could meet in
the street. Or as his colleague, the illustrator Stanley Meltzoff,
described him: 'Avati is a naturalist painting us with our
suspenders down'. He is considered the opposite of the great
American illustrator Norman Rockwell.
Most of his working life Avati lived in the state of New Jersey.
He was born in Bloomfield on December 14, 1912, the son of a
Scottish mother and an Italian father. During his childhood years
he lived in Little Silver and he studied at Princeton University.
In 1940 he married Jane Hammell, the daughter of an illustrator
mother and an art director father, and settled in Red Bank. After
the Second World War he tried to make a living as an illustrator.
In 1949 he produced his first paperback covers (Bantam Books and
Signet Books). He soon became one of the most successful and best
paid cover illustrators of his time. But unlike his colleagues,
who only turned to this kind of work for a few years to make some
money, Avati never did anything else for the rest of his life.
After his 'golden era' with the New American Library (1949-1955)
he continued making cover illustrations for paperbacks; in the
1960s primarily for Bantam Books, in the 1970s predominently for
Avon Books, and after that for all other major publishers of
paperbacks, like Pocket Books, Fawcett, Dell and Ballantine.
James Avati was married twice and had eight children. His oldest
daughter Alexandra (Zan) often posed for the photographs he took
to make his paintings. Avati preferred to use non-professional,
common people as models. It suited him fine if the models felt
uncomfortable, because he often aimed to depict this exact
In 1989 he moved to California, where he painted landscapes and
portraits for fun well into old age. He passed away on February
27, 2005 in his hometown of Petaluma (California).
In concurrence with the exhibition, the first monograph of James
Avati will be published. The Paperback Art of James Avati
by Piet Schreuders & Kenneth Fulton consists of 200 pages and features more than
300 illustrations. The price of the book is € 29.50. MORE
INFORMATION ABOUT THIS BOOK - CLICK HERE
Exhibition after a concept and curated by:
Helmond Municipal Museum in collaboration with Piet Schreuders.