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