“I can remember the day when I stood in front of my easel and said to myself, you got to do the best you can; no more foolin’ around; you got to be really serious about this. Do the best you can. ‘Cause it’s always easy to get to a point where you’re making a painting and say, yeah, that looks good, I like it, leave it!” -James Avati
James Avati graduated from Princeton in 1935 with a major in architecture and a minor in art and archeology. After various unfulfilling jobs during a Depression Era market in 1939, Avati decided to become a freelance artist after getting $500 capital and an apartment in New York City. After modest success as a department store window designer he was drafted into the army in World War II.
When he returned home he was able to get some work in magazine illustration to support his family. Frustrated by the restraints of art directors, Avati quit and entered into construction as a laborer. He was pulled back into the world of art by the publishing house New American Library to illustrate post World War II paperbacks growing in popularity in the American market. The majority of his cover illustration was for classics, romance novels and mysteries with the occasional science fiction story.
Avati typically had three weeks to read the book, create the cover concept, get it approved, photograph models for the composition and execute the painting. According to Avati, “I used to lie awake nights thinking about covers. I used to agonize over them, trying to extract a dramatic image out of a book. I really did think hard about the story and what it meant. And then I got a hunch; it would come like an image in my head."
Avati became one of the most celebrated paperback artists of this period and created over 600 covers for various publishers from 1949 to 1989. Despite the demand for his work back then, once his paintings were used by the publishers they were often given away to newsstand dealers as an incentive to display their paperback books; given as souvenirs to authors; taken home by publishing executives or rotted in warehouse storage.
His paintings are now highly sought after by collectors and a retrospective exhibition in the Netherlands of his life’s work has highlighted the importance of his paintings to 20th century American illustration.
Avati shared a studio (Red Bank Studio in New Jersey) with fellow artist Stanley Meltzoff.