Detail from Avati's cover painting for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, by Tennessee Williams

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Text/Tekst Copyright CuBra & Ed Schilders 2005

Ed Schilders

James Avati - Cover Story

This article/interview originally appeared in New Jersey Monthly, april 1982

 


James (Jim) Avati in his studio. Photo: Ed Schilders


Timmy Avati showing one of the few original paintings his father possessed in 1980. Later Avati actually did retrieve many of his works from the 1940's and 50's from the publisher's warehouse. Photo: Ed Schilders.


Avati's cover for Theodore Dreiser's classic novel An American Tragedy. Avati: 'She seemed to me the epitome of the American Sweetheart.'


Avati's first paperback cover. 


Avati's cover for Alberto Moravia's The Fancy Dress Party, one of his 'crowded' covers.


Avati's cover for J.D. Salinger's cult-classic The Catcher in the Rye.


Note Peyton Loftis' right foot: 'Too big', according to William Styron's father.


James Avati in 1980. Photo: Ed Schilders

For about twenty years ­ roughly between 1940 and 1960 - there flourished in this country a singular style in painting and illustration. It was brooding, colorful, realistic, and often vaguely pornographic, and it manifested itself on the covers of paperback books. Long regarded with a mixture of amusement, condescension, and embarrassment, these covers are only now beginning to be recognized as the works of art they are. Once hidden away in attics, they have become highly sought­after collector's items that fetch high prices at auctions and conventions.

 

The man universally recognized as the master of the form is a 69-year-old resident of Red Bank named James Avati. According to his friend, colleague, and fellow New Jerseyan Stanley Meltzoff (of Fair Haven), "Avati stands alone, not only as the great pioneer, but also as the best of us all, right up to today. He is the only one who counts - everyone else just passed through."

Avati was born in Bloomfield, the son of a Scottish mother and an Italian immigrant who became a respected photographer in New York City. His parents died when he was a child, and the wealthy uncle who raised him sent him to Princeton to study architecture. After he graduated, though, he earned his living in New York designing display windows for Fifth Avenue department stores. He spent World War II as a radio operator, and when it was over he finally decided to try to become what he had always wanted to be - an illustrator and a painter.

At first, most of his work was for the women's magazines. The experience wasn’t a pleasant one -too much interference from the publishers - so Avati quit to become a carpenter. In 1948, while he was helping to build a house, he got a phone call from Kurt Enoch, asking him to paint covers for the New American Library (NAL), a new paperback publishing house that Enoch and Victor Weybright had recently established. Avati said yes to Enoch's proposal; within a year, he would set the tone that dominated the appearance of paperback books till the end of the fifties.

Among cognoscenti of paperback art, Avati is now considered the painter who changed the highly symbolic and rather abstract style of the thirties and forties into the realism of the fifties. Within a

few years a complete "Avati School" of cover artists sprang into being; although some of those realists, such as Stanley Zuckerberg and Meltzoff, have been able to develop a highly personal style, none of them created sulch a consistent oeuvre with so much literary impact as Avati has done. It was always Avati who was asked to "cover" New American Library's best authors ­ Theodore Dreiser, John O'Hara, James T. Farrell, Alberto Moravia, William Faulkner, Christopher lsherwood, and J.D. Salinger. Better than anyone else, Avati managed to express the emotional drama of the novel within the painting that he was creating for its cover. Not all, but the major part of his work can best be described as literature made visible.

Not long ago, I paid a visit to the house on the corner of Broad and Mechanic streets in Red Bank, where Avati lives (alone - he's separated from his second wife) and works. He uses the center of the apartment as a studio; it is filled with paintings, palettes, tubes with oil paint, pots with brushes, painter's knives, and, in front of the largest window, an easel with a work in progress: two teenagers in a landscape. (This will eventually become a cover for a Dell paperback.) Leaning against the walls are dozens of oil paintings on prepared board, his paperback covers from the sixties and the seventies. (When I visited him, Avati had only five paintings from his best period, the late forties and the fifties, when most of his painting was done for New American Library's Signet Books. Aware that at least two hundred paintings from this period must be somewhere in the storehouses of the publisher, Avati was attempting to obtain possession of them: with old age approaching, they might prove to be a welcome source of income.)

I asked Avati about his first experiences in the field. "NAL was a very small company then," he said. "It was almost like a family. Enoch made me do sketch after sketch for my first cover, The Last of the Conquerors, by WiIliam Gardner Smith. It was one of those covers where we were a little dishonest for mass market's sake. I think one of the characters of the story was a black man, a black G.I., and he was picking up a white girl in Berlin. They wouldn't put a black man and a white girl on the cover in those days. It was just outside of what was accepted culturaIly in some parts of the country. So I had to paint him as a white man."

Avati made waves almost immediately, and he found the reaction a little hard to understand. He told me: "I wasn't aware of anything unusual in my approach, except that I was trying to make something that the publisher would accept and that I thought was interesting and was a good representation of the book. I was in demand right away because the books were seIling. They were good authors. Faulkner and Farrell and Salinger… So they deserved to sell.

"I was doing a down-to-earth kind of realism. I was very much involved in the aesthetics of it because that, to me, was the whole reason of painting: to teIl these stories. I got very much emotionaIly involved in some of the material. It was a sort of double education. The literature was enlightening to me, and then I was learning to paint. It was very challenging and it was very hard, too. I had to find some idea in the story that I thought I could make a cover of, and then I had the practical problem of how to engineer the idea. I had to find models, background material, some kind of environment that I could paint and couId deal with."

Besides turning blacks into whites, paperback publishers had other ways of misrepresenting the contents of books. Black­haired women constantly appeared on covers as platinum vamps (as in many editions of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice); sex and sadism that hardly ever could be found in the story were continually suggested. Avati, however, never surrendered to this convention. He never painted silicone women or Charles Atlas men. His women were fragile, hurt, disiIlusioned; the men, fuIl of idle hope.

"Sometimes it was very difficult to find models who could represent the characters from the book," Avati said. "Beauty was nothing to me. They had to have some other quality. Often I worked with models who never before had been chosen by photographers or painters. Like the girl on my cover for Dreiser's An American Tragedy. It was the first time she had ever posed. She seemed to me the epitome of the American Sweetheart, a gentle, middle-class person. I like that painting, its balance of shapes."

Whereas the average paperback cover of the period depicted two or three characters, many of Avati's paintings showed as many as fifteen. The reason for the general underpopulation, Avati said, was that the artist had to pay the models himself. "I was working for a fixed fee, two or three hundred dollars, so it cost me a lot to do these covers. Nowadays mostly a publisher picks up the expenses. To me it was always a real inner tug of war. I got a certain idea and I wanted to paint it. The question was if I could afford to do so. Sometimes I couldn't, and then 1 would try to devise ways of using the same models twice. You can do that by using different angles or different costumes."

I asked Avati about the reactions he got from authors. "When I had painted all those covers for the NAL editions of Erskine Caldwell's books, Caldwell asked me to do his portrait," he said. "And William Styron told me that his father was the first to notice that the girl on my cover for Lie Down in Darkness had one foot that was much too big.

"J.D. Salinger didn't like my cover for Catcher in the Rye. In fact, he resisted the very idea of having artwork on the cover. One day he came to the NAL offices to complain about it. We went together into a little room and I said, ‘Come on! These guys are doing the selling, they know how to sell.’ But he was very reluctant. At first, his idea was to have something less realistic, more the printmaker's look. But since that was impossible - he was not yet a known author - he wanted something more sentimental. The carousel in the park, you know. I didn't like that cover that I ended up painting too much myself. Not because of the idea, but it's not very weIl painted. But, anyway, I may be the only person who ever changed Salinger's mind."

Avati's current work is very different from what he produced during his fifties heyday. Today, his paintings are not as dramatic, but they are, said Avati, "more controlled and ‘designy’. Now I work with a cast of characters who don't have that much emotional interaction, rather than with two people in an intense situation." Today, he works mainly for Dell and Ballantine.

Clearly Avati feels that something has been lost. He said: "My work has changed so radically that you wouldn’t even know it's the same person. I have the skill, like a juggIer. I can juggle. In those days I only decided to do a cover or not after reading the book. I'm not nearly as involved anymore. My emotional investment is a minimum. The hardest thing for me is to identify with somebody's historica1 romance. They're very standard. Once in a while I still make a connection with the book, I have the right feeling. It's just... I know how to do these things, so I do them."

After a long silence, he added, "I don't believe in my work anymore. It's totally phony." He pointed at some Xeroxes I had made from his early covers. "This was reaI. It may not have been like real life, but it was real to me."