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Richard M. Powers, February 24, 1921 – March 9, 1996
Richard M. Powers, February 24, 1921 – March 9, 1996Artist Spotlight
by Giovanna Adams
Most who admire the work of Richard M. Powers first encountered it not in classrooms or museums, but on the covers of science fiction and fantasy paperbacks published in the 1950's and '60's. Where most sci-fi cover art in the early '50s consisted of bland representations of spaceships and other hardware, Powers' cover paintings were startlingly different from those of his contemporaries. His covers emphasized atmosphere and mood, using fine art techniques of surrealism and abstraction. It was through Powers' 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. He was burdened by a broken family, nightmares, headaches, and eye problems, but he read constantly, and soon discovered his ability to draw. His artistic skills were encouraged by his uncle who was a landscape artist and billboard painter. His uncle provided him with technical advice and free paint.
As a teenager, Richard Powers attended the Art Institute of Chicago, and the University Of Illinois School Of Fine Art. However, 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. After the war, Powers took courses at the School for Illustrators and the New School and also spent about one year painting on location in Maine and Vermont under the tutelage of landscapist and marine artist, Jake Conoway.
In 1948 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's earliest SF work was considered "techno-realist" but eventually he gradually introduced elements of abstraction in his work. In 1953, Star Science Fiction was his first cover for Ballantine Books, the leading 1950s publisher of science fiction. Their booklist included such classics-to-be as Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood’s End and James Blish's A Case of Conscience, all of which featured memorable covers by Powers.
Powers was given an endless amount of freedom in Ballantine's science fiction line. He often created not only the cover illustrations, but the entire design of the books, including positioning of the title and other text, selecting and coloring the typefaces, and sometimes even hand painting the lettering.
In addition to painting more than a hundred covers for Ballantine, Powers was the artist of choice for Berkley, Dell, and numerous other Science Fiction publishers. Powers's success encouraged other SF artists like Ed Emshwiller 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 but De Chirico, Miro and Ernst. Sometimes the influence was obvious, as on the cover of Star Wormwood (1959), a non-fiction work in which a watercolor of a man sitting in an electric chair resembles Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Pope.”
Powers's astounding productivity (more than 1500 covers and interior illustrations) may be explained by the fact that he was a stylistic chameleon. He was respected for his illustration in classical literature, revealing a special affinity for the works of Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. He could easily transition from the representational to the modern, from a woodcut style (Dell's Thomas Hardy series) to oriental brushwork (Jiro Osaragi's ). He also had a comic style which was seem in a 1970's gallery exhibition entitled, "Nixophobic."
The most significant of Powers styles aside from his Science Fiction and Horror genres was his style represented by his covers for J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man (1959), James Purdy’s Malcolm (1959), and the graphics he contributed to Fidelity magazine. As with his abstract science fiction work, Power's artwork helped to define the look and feel of an era.
In March of 1996, Richard M. Powers died of an aneurysm 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, he became a genre unto himself, obliterating the distinctions between mainstream and science fiction, between high art and low. His work, with 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.
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