Irreplaceable: Dr. James H. Fraser

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Dr. James Howard Fraser, author, scholar, librarian and champion of avant garde and vernacular art and design, was always researching and writing about arcane yet extraordinary visual phenomena, like Mongolian graphic design from the early to mid-Twentieth Century and Lithuanian posters from the 1980s. His most recent book Publishing and Book Design In Latvia 1919-1940: a Re-Discovery (Neputns Ltd., Riga, Latvia), which he had been researching for the past several years, will be published posthumously this month. On Monday, November 25, days before this book was scheduled to go on press, Jim passed away from an inoperable brain tumor. He was 80.


Dr. James H. and Sibylle von Holstein Fraser

Jim was my mentor and enabler. I first met him when, as director of the Friendship Library at Fairleigh Dickenson University, he opened its vast holdings of comics, propaganda, typography and book arts, among other scholarly riches, to me and forever changed how I engaged with design history. His library, smack in the middle of bucolic Morristown, New Jersey, was the best stocked and most welcoming research institution on the East Coast, especially for satiric, political, social and cultural art, graphic design, billboard history and Jim’s greatest love, illustrated children books (he was the editor of Phaedrus, a scholarly journal devoted to the subject). The vast library holdings, which were sadly dismantled a decade ago owing to bureaucratic wrangling at the University, were eclectic yet each individual collection provided a comprehensive narrative lovingly and intelligently assembled. Jim had an uncanny ability to procure the perfect examples of rarities and classics, in part from existing collections deposited in his care. And also because he adopted homeless collections, like the extensive Outdoor Advertising archive, which he dipped into for his popular book The American Billboard: 100 Years (Abrams, 1991). He also used his profound intelligence and understated dry but hilarious wit to persuade donors to grant him stewardship of their riches.

I was one of the many who succumbed to his self-effacing charms and inadvertent spell. I went to his library to explore comic book history (The Harry “A” Chesler Collection of Comics and Cartoon Art was housed there – Chesler was the first packager of comics into comic books) and found a rich mine of political and social design from periods in the Twentieth Century when graphic design actually contributed to life and death issues. In 1984, Jim and I collaborated on the first of various projects, the exhibition and catalog Malik Verlag 1916-1947, Germany’s most influential left-wing publishing house (Goethe House). We also worked together (with Seymour Chwast) on Japanese Modern: Graphic Design between the Wars (Chronicle Books, 1996).


Malik Verlag exhibition catalog by James H. Fraser and Steven Heller. Designed by Louise Fili.

Jim filled my eyes and mind with options for further studies and my bookshelves with duplicates and triplicates from his collections that were consistent with his and my own passions. He was generous beyond description, in the way that great research librarians are meant to be. Even in the midst of his own research frenzies, no request for help was ever ignored. Whether it was finding the origins of a rare work or collecting information on someone or something that seemed impossible to find, Jim was challenged by the prospect of discovery – and took joy in the hunt. On occasion, he’d send me a surprise package of material that he thought I should begin researching.

Jim spent 50 years working in and with academic and research libraries as a specialist locating and collecting research materials and documents of all kinds gathered during periods of political and social upheaval in various countries, including the German Democratic Republic (GDR ) before and after the Wall of 1961; the USSR during glasnost; the Middle-East during the rise of the PLO, Hamas, and other organizations from early 1970s and 1980s. He once told me he’d sift through the garbage of the left-radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in New York in order trade with European institutions their throwaways for German, French, Italian and other counterparts. Using this material he organized exhibitions, often with accompanying exhibition catalogs.


Fraser was a maven for Japanese graphics between the wars.

He worked as an “elusive materials consultant” for libraries as diverse as the Deutsche Staatsbibliothek (Berlin-DDR and now the Staatsbibliothek Berlin) and Musachino Art University, Museum and Library (Tokyo); Library of Congress and Harvard Libraries; Jewish Museums of Berlin and Stockholm; Yale University’s Art and Architecture Library; National Library of Latvia; and Alaska Jewish History Museum [in planning stage].

He founded and edited the international research journal for childrens literature, Phaedrus published by Columbia University Library School and later, K.G. Saur; and he was an editorial board member for other rigorous journals on the theme, including Bookbird (Vienna) Young People in China (Tientsin), Printing History (Rochester, NJ), Beiträge z. Kinder- u. Jugendliteratur (Berlin). Eastern Europe was wellspring for his brand of visual archeology, The Czech Avant-Garde and Czech Book Design (Tokyo, 1996) was one of many projects that took him into formerly locked archives.


Fraser was the caretaker for the American billboard.

Jim’s first encounter with Latvian graphic design came about after a visit to Riga and the Avots and Liesma publishing houses in 1977. He later co-published “Remarkable Posters from Latvia” in Print Mar/Apr 1985. Subsequent trips to Riga in the 1990s further stimulated his research on Latvian graphic design in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Friendship Library had an enviable collection of vintage printing presses, which were operated in metal type workshops that Jim organized. His love of fine printing and engravings resulted in various exhibitions, notably John DePol: a Catalogue Raisonné of his Graphic Work 1935-1998 compiled by J.F. and Eleanor Friedl (2001). He also spent time sifting through photography as editor of Roman Vishniac’s Berlin, a monograph (Jewish Museum-Berlin 2005) from a collection of his street photos once confiscated by Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels.

Narrative was Jim’s forte. With a glimmer in his eye, his red cheeks beaming he often told stories that he knew would result in joy (and sometimes envy) in the listener. I recall two unforgettable tales:

He was once visited by a woman who wanted to determine the value of some prints left to her by a close relative. They were kept in an old, paint stained folio, but when opened – at this point in the story Jim would pause dramatically – there were some very valuable (let’s say) Expressionist prints. Aghast yet delighted, Jim asked if there were more of the same, to which the woman said ‘yes, in the attic.’ As Jim described it, he ventured to the woman’s home in rural New Jersey, which had an old washing machine used as a planter on the lawn, where he was welcomed inside. Up the dark stairs
to the attic, out of the corner of one eye, he saw some things of interest on the wall, but did not stop long enough to see them clearly. In the attic, under dust, old paint cans and mouse droppings, was another folio. Opening it carefully, he found more Impressionist, Expressionist and other original prints, including some Lautrecs. Carrying this batch downstairs, he stopped before one of the framed pictures – Jim again paused for affect before saying ‘they were Rembrandt prints.’ He got the woman a hefty tax deduction for her donation of the material, he proudly noted.

I have retold that story so many times that I may have embellished my telling a bit over the years, but Jim never boasted, so I know it is essentially true. The other story brought many of his friends joy:

While in Germany, Jim learned that a major type foundry (I don’t recall whether it was Bauer or Berthold) was closing its doors and disposing of all its printed specimens, proofs and catalogs and he had limited time to take whatever he wanted. Jim told me he hired a few trucks to cart away what sounded like tons of material. I enjoyed the image of him on a pile of type ephemera. Once in his possession, he sorted through and kept what was needed for the library and parceled out packets to his friends, acquaintances and work-shoppers. I was the on the receiving end of a few of these “goodie bags,” and a happier recipient could not be found.

Whenever we talked or spent time together, Jim always made me feel like I was the focus of his attention. Of course that’s absurd, he had his family, his wife Sibylle von Holstein Fraser; children Stephen H. Fraser and Caitlin F. James; and grandchildren, James, Katherine and Stuart Fraser and Katherine and Gemma James. But others who were in his orbit felt the same keen sense of exclusivity. That’s a rare attribute in our fleeting, Tweeting, trending culture.

Dr. James Howard Fraser enabled me and many others to extend their range, learn more about their fields, and feel that what they did had value – if only to Jim. It’s an understatement to call this a loss – Jim is irreplaceable.

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