ABOUT RICHARD M. POWERS
By C. Jerry Kutner
Not all great art is discovered on the walls of museums. Most of us who admire the work of Richard M. Powers first encountered it not in classrooms or museums or prestigious art books, but on the covers of mass-market science fiction and fantasy paperbacks published in the 1950's and '60's. Powers' eye-catching cover paintings were startlingly different from those of his contemporaries. Where most sci-fi cover art in the early '50s consisted of dryly literal representations of spaceships and other hardware (the "techno-realist" school), or else tentacled aliens, hard-bodied space heroes, and their curvaceous female companions (the "pulp" school), Powers' innovative covers emphasized atmosphere and mood, utilizing the fine arts techniques of surrealism, abstraction, and collage to explore the inner landscape of the human imagination. Psychedelic before its time and astonishing in its variety, it was through Powers' visionary work, according to The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, that "the packaging of SF could be said to have come of age."
Richard Michael Powers was born in Chicago, Illinois on February 24, 1921. Young Powers was plagued by a broken family, nightmares, headaches, and "bad eyes," but he read compulsively, and soon discovered an innate ability to draw. His artistic tendencies were encouraged by an uncle, a skilled landscape artist who made his living as a billboard painter. The uncle kindly provided Powers with technical advice and all the free paint he could use.
In his late 'teens, Richard Powers attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University of Illinois School of Fine Art. When World War II broke out, Powers joined the Army, and was assigned to the Signal Corps film studios in Astoria, Queens, where he worked side by side with Hollywood professionals painting scenery and props. Following the war, Powers settled in New York City, taking courses at the School for Illustrators and the New School. Discouraged by the commercial orientation of his New York instructors, Powers also spent about one year painting on location in Maine and Vermont under the tutelage of landscapist and marine artist, Jake Conoway.
The late '40s and early '50s were the "golden era" of paperback cover illustration. It was during this creatively exciting period (1948) that Powers obtained his first commercial assignment, illustrating a hardcover edition of Gulliver's Travels for the World Publishing Company. This was followed by his first hardcover science fiction work for Doubleday and Company. (Powers would continue to be Doubleday's favorite SF cover artist for the next twenty years.) The late '40s also marked the true beginning of Powers' fine arts career, starting at the top as part of a four-man exhibition at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. The success of this show led to a lifelong affiliation with (and many future exhibitions at) Madison Avenue's Rehn Gallery. During this same period, Powers also found the time to get married and father four children.
Powers' earliest SF work was of the "techno-realist" school, only gradually introducing elements of abstraction. He painted covers in the SF, mystery, and classical literature genres for such paperback houses as Avon, Crest, Berkley, Signet, and Dell. Then, in 1953, Star Science Fiction (BB#16), his first cover for Ballantine Books. It would prove to be the most fruitful association of Powers' career.
Founded in 1952 by Ian and Betty Ballantine, Ballantine Books was the leading '50s publisher of mature and literate science fiction. Their booklist included such classics-to-be as Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants (BB#21), Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (BB#33), Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human (BB#46), and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (BB#256), all of which featured memorable covers by Powers.
Powers became the virtual art director of Ballantine's science fiction line, creating not only the cover illustrations (front, back, and occasionally wraparound), but the entire design of the books including positioning of the title and other text, selecting and coloring the typefaces, and sometimes even handpainting the lettering. Ballantine gave Powers the freedom to experiment endlessly. The more he got away with, the further he went. Reach For Tomorrow (BB#135) is a striking early experiment. The subject matter is a city on an alien planet. Or is it? The shapes of the city, alternately rounded and spiky, resemble blobs of clay or melted wax more than they do any realistic architectural construction. The city rests in the middle of a silent desert, closer in look and feel to the paintings of Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy than the other SF artwork of its era. Furthermore, the format of this painting is horizontal. To view it correctly, one has to hold the book sideways!
By the late '50s, the world of the SF paperback had been conquered by "the Powers style." In addition to painting more than a hundred covers for Ballantine, Powers was the artist of choice for Berkley, Dell, and numerous other SF publishers. Powers' success encouraged other SF artists like Ed Emshwiller, Jack Gaughan, and Paul Lehr to experiment with surrealism and abstraction. Powers' art, in turn, assimilated the styles of most of the major surrealists of this century, not only Dali and Tanguy, but Calder and De Chirico, Miro and Kandinsky, Klee and Ernst. Sometimes the homage is obvious, as on the cover of Star Wormwood (Berkley, 1959), a non-fiction work in which a watercolor of a man sitting in an electric chair resembles Francis Bacon s "Screaming Pope."
For the most part, however, Powers was his own man -- never more so than in Ballantine's "Chamber of Horrors," a paperback series which permitted Powers to fully express his formidable penchant for the Macabre. The Graveyard Reader (BB#257), was first: a decadently hued phantasmagoria of paint splatters and spidery linework, bubbling with imagery of monsters, beautiful women, and corpses mounted on skeleton steeds. Other masterpieces in this series include Tales To Be Told In The Dark (BB#380), Invisible Men (BB#401), Things With Claws (BB#466), The Other Passenger (BB#480), Tales Of Love And Horror (BB#522), The Clock Strikes Twelve (BB#531), Sardonicus And Other Stories (BB#540), Shadows With Eyes (BB#577), H. P. Lovecraft's The Survivor And Others (BB#629) and Charles Beaumont's The Fiend in You (BB#641). Once seen, never forgotten.
Powers' incredible productivity (more than 1500 covers and interior illustrations) may be partly explained by the fact that he was a stylistic chameleon. He was highly respected for his illustration in the classical literature tradition, revealing a special affinity for the works of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. He could shift easily from the representational to the modern, from a woodcut style (Dell's Thomas Hardy series) to oriental brushwork (Jiro Osaragi's Homecoming ). He also had a comic/satiric style which culminated in a 1970's gallery exhibition entitled, "Nixophobic."
But the most significant of Powers styles aside from his SF and horror modes was Powers' "Beat" style, represented by his covers for J. P. Donleavy s The Ginger Man (Berkley, 1959), James Purdy s Malcolm (Avon, 1959), and the hip pop graphics he contributed to High Fidelity magazine. As with his abstract science fiction work, Power's "Beat" artwork helped to define the look and feel of an era.
The death of Powers' first wife in the mid-60's caused a radical shift in lifestyle and orientation. Commercial assignments were no longer a priority as Powers moved to Jamaica in the West Indies to concentrate on his gallery work. Powers would continue to paint book covers throughout the '70s, 80's, and '90s, but with considerably less frequency, and the assignments he chose to accept -- mostly trade paperbacks and hardcovers -- were generally more prestigious than his '50s and '60s work. In more than a few cases, he convinced publishers to use his previously completed fine arts paintings on their covers. Eventually Powers remarried and returned to the United States, spending his later years in Ridgefield, Connecticut and in Europe. Highlights of this period include Collier Books' trade paperback series of Soviet science fiction, DAW Books' Annual World's Best SF (1978-1990), and the glossily reproduced interior illustrations he provided for the Easton Press series of leatherbound collectors' editions.
Powers died of an aneurysm on March 9, 1996, while visiting his daughter in Madrid, Spain. Like many creators who work in the competing worlds of high art and popular culture, Powers was never wholly embraced by either. Ultimately, Richard M. Powers became a genre unto himself, obliterating the distinctions between mainstream and science fiction, between high art and low. His work, notwithstanding its many styles, had only one true subject -- the imagination, in all of its beauty, terror, and complexity -- and what Powers' imagination produced is destined to live on alongside the finest artwork of the late 20th century.
Great Books, Great Covers
Return to Powers Home Page