A jobless architect during the Great Depression, James Avati went on to become one of the most widely circulated illustrators of the 21st century
Hard times and the future of generations can be a gloomy topic, so the record of college graduates of the 1930s has some encouraging notes. Adaptable men and women often found their real vocations. My favorite example is the illustrator James Avati (1912-2005), subject of a museum exhibition reviewed in the New York Times.
I started to collect 1950s paperbacks with Avati signatures even before I knew who he was. What Norman Rockwell was to middle-class magazines, Avati was to mass market paperbacks of the 1950s and beyond. His signature was one of the first to appear on covers; publishers found that paperback outlets would buy more copies with an Avati cover. So his work could be found in tens of millions of homes, even though Avati collecting has always been a niche category. Avati was a self-taught painter but a master of interpreting a book, whether William Faulkner or Mickey Spillane. (The original for Catcher in the Rye recently was auctioned for over $21,500.) He was an early representative of what sociologists of the arts later called an omnivorous approach to culture, mixing "high" and "low." He read books carefully before illustrating them and made his canvases extra large, so many of the printed covers have remarkable detail and tonal range. No mass market illustrator could express a greater range of emotion. It was almost as though he were a theatrical or motion picture director plus production designer.