James Avati - A retrospective exhibition in Helmond

Avati's cover painting for John O'Hara's classic novel Appointment in Samarra
© Gemeentemuseum Helmond / Estate of James Avati, USA

James Avati

King of Paperbacks

Paintings, sketches, photographs, paperbacks, film: a retrospective (1949-1980)

9 October 2005 - 15 January 2006
Gemeentemuseum Helmond,
location Boscotondohall

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.

Mass culture
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 awkwardness.
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.