Remembering the Rembrandt of Red Bank

The late James Avati, pictured in the early 1990s at his Broad Street studio, employed friends, family members and Red Bank neighbors as models for his sought-after paperback cover paintings of the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  (Avati photo by Piet Schreuders)

He was the King of the Paperback Book Cover Artists — even the Rembrandt of the Paperbacks, according to some. An innovator who set the pace during what’s widely considered a golden age of American illustration — and he did it all from his walk-up studio above Broad Street in Red Bank.

During the years dating from the end of the Second World War to the era of the WIN Button, the late James Avati created hundreds of vivid, powerful cover paintings for novels by FaulknerDreiserO’Hara and many other leading literary lions of the day — as well as for upstarts like J. D. Salinger and Mickey Spillane, whose hardboiled epics were reportedly no favorites of the artist.

Famous for reading every word of every book he was hired to do, Avati was commissioned for dozens of high-profile titles from New American Library and other top publishing houses, and found his smoldering, moody style quickly imitated by his peers. It would have been easy for him to work exclusively with the best available models, but what truly set Avati’s work apart — what gave it that edge of authenticity and heart — was his preference for “real people” subjects; many of them drawn from his circle of friends, relatives and neighbors in and around Red Bank.

Beginning this Friday evening, July 15, those faces that once called out to readers from drugstore bookracks and bus station spinners will be on full-size display, as the Monmouth Museum on the Lincroft campus of Brookdale College hosts an opening reception for The Painting World of James Avati. A sampling from the world’s largest collection of the artist’s sought-after work, it’s a priceless portrait of American realism in words and pictures; a painted diorama of a bygone Red Bank, and a fascinating glimpse into the creative process of a man whose signature work has been described as “the darker side of Norman Rockwell.”

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ARCHIVE: Something for Everyman

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George Segal photographing Donald Lokuta (who, seen reflected in mirror, is in turn photographing Segal) at the Golden Bell Diner in Freehold, 1989 — included in a major exhibit of work by both Segal and Lokuta at the Monmouth Museum. (all photos courtesy of Donald Lokuta)

(First published on Red Bank oRBit February 18, 2010)

“I made up my mind that daily life is extraordinary.”

A handful of well-chosen words from a man who famously let a series of stony, silent figures become his most eloquent mouthpiece. At the time of his passing almost ten years ago, George Segal was regarded as America’s premier sculptor, an experimenter who emerged from the Pop Art school of Warhol and Lichtenstein to become a rumpled eminence whose work adorned university campuses, permanent collections, national memorials.

Even if you’ve never visited an art museum, you’ve seen his somber, monochromatic life-size figures in places like the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the National Mall in DC. Cast from live models using plaster-soaked bandages — a technique he first tried out on himself in the 1950s and perfected over the next decade — his people go about their business like ghosts; averting their faces from each other and waiting for things that never seem to arrive.

Underlying the melancholy of the mundane in Segal’s best known work is a subtle celebration — a celebration of the “everyman” and the queued-up world he/she inhabits. The artist, who lived most of his days on a Middlesex County farm, was infinitely more likely to be found occupying a booth at a Route 9 diner than a roped-off VIP area at Studio 54; walking a then-desolate Asbury Park boardwalk instead of summering in the Hamptons.

Beginning next weekend and continuing into the middle of April, the Monmouth Museum is the setting for George Segal Everyman: Sculpture, Paintings & Drawings — a major milestone for the nonprofit facility (located on the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College) and an event that’s scheduled to include the participation of some special guests.

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