Richard M. Powers achieved his greatest recognition as an illustrator during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when his surrealistic, abstract expressionist style dominated the eld of science fiction cover illustration.
Born in Chicago in 1921, Powers was introduced to painting by his billboard- artist relative Uncle Mike, and raised by his mother, Marcella, and his Aunt Roe, who filled their apartment with (the most realistic, e.g. clipper ships) paintings by Powers and his brother Jack. He drew illustrations for his high school magazine and painted scenery for the drama club, then studied art (and Greek!) at Chicago’s Mizen Academy, the Chicago Art Institute, the University of Illinois and, while in the service, at the University of Kentucky.
Emerging from the army in 1946, Powers showed his illustration samples to the slicks and pulps; samples he’d tailored to what those publications were buying. Concurrently, he circulated his short stories to the same potential clients, again with an eye to their specific audience. In fact, he had begun to market his dual talents while still in the army working at the Signal Corps film studios in Astoria. (The motto of the Signal Corps, one of his army buddies later told me, was “We’ll kill ‘em with film”—you have to pronounce “ lm” “kill-em” to get the idea.) He was waiting to see which would break first, his writing or his illustration, ready to move in either direction. He did get a piece published in the prestigious Story magazine, considered one of the top literary short story publications, but by then he was receiving a variety of cover assignments: children’s magazines, westerns, mysteries. In 1949, he got his first big prestige commission, a full-color illustrated Landmark edition of Gulliver’s Travels.
From then on he received more commissions than he could handle, all executed in a conventional realistic manner but with a personal style that made his work identifiable to art directors. In 1952, Ian Ballantine launched his own imprint in the burgeoning eld of science fiction (as well as other genres), but with a twist that would set his Ballantine Books apart from Pocket Books and other competitors. In a move that was decisive for the careers of both publisher and the artist, Ballantine enthusiastically agreed to the Powers’ idea of abandoning the prevailing BEM (Bug-Eyed Monsters) and Babes SciFi cover style, and embraced abstract “space-scape-ish” images, which Powers derived loosely from abstract surrealists Yves Tanguy and Francis Picabia. Upon receiving a manuscript, Powers would at least skim it. Sometimes what he produced would be somewhat related to the story, sometimes not at all.
Powers’ wife, Evelyn, his agent, or he himself, would show up at Ballantine, Berkeley, and other publishers with paintings in hand, and the art directors would buy artwork with only a vague idea of which cover would be used for which novel. An example is the Berkeley’s paperback cover for Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, a dystopian account of an American future when the Nazis and Japanese, who had won World War II, have set up totalitarian governments resisted by patriotic democratic insurgents. e cover is an Yves Tanguy-ish space scape without the slightest relation to anything terrestrial. The implication, art historically and/or economically speaking, was that a Powers’ cover sold books, whereas—in this case and at this point in time (1982)—realistic images of Nazis and Japanese would appeal to whom? “No one,” might have been the publisher’s worried reply.
Like many illustrators, Powers also pursued a fine arts career, beginning with entries in exhibitions of soldiers’ art during the war. One of his drawings, a striking charcoal titled “Dos Passos’ three Soldiers” done in the manner of Goya’s war engravings, was a winner in the 1945 National Army Arts Contest. It was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and included in a Soldier Art collection published by the Infantry Journal in 1945. He took classes at the New School, where he studied with Julian Levi, a WPA- style representational artist with a dead-on talent for full-body studies of clothed figures in action; and Adja Yunkers, an abstractionist whose styles recalled Hans Ho man, Picasso’s cubist period, and a surreal grotesque manner all his own.
The most formative influence on Powers’ painting was the National Academy seascape painter Jay Connaway, who lived with his wife Louise and daughter Liannabel on Monhegan Island in the Atlantic off Boothbay Harbor, Maine. The island had been attracting painters such as Rockwell Kent and the Wyeths since before the beginning of the century. While on the GI Bill, Powers absorbed Connaway’s lessons on traditional formulas for conveying seas and atmosphere. Then, after Connaway moved to Dorset, Vermont, Powers followed him to study landscape painting. In New York. Powers joined the Rehn Gallery, known for representing the Ash Can School, and he was featured in group shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the Corcoran Gallery. For the rest of his life he painted outdoors, seascapes of Monhegan and Caribbean Islands, and landscapes of Spain, the latter incorporating grotesque imagery in the style of Dali.
In 1960 American Artist pro led him in an adulatory piece by Ervine Metzl, who concluded that Powers’ illustration work “stands head and shoulders above the utilitarian commercial requirements that bought it. It belongs to the realm of fine art.” The New York Times singled out his Jamaican collages as “the most interesting things” in a group show at the Rehn in 1964 that included works by Charles Burchfield and Reginald Marsh.
When he was elected to the Society of Illustrators in 1958, Powers submitted a short bio claiming to be a “card carrying member, Flat Earth Society. Correspondence Sec. Von Braun Fan Club. Retired V. F. Metesky Boosters. Hobbies: Soliciting Funds, rehabilitation of Charlie Chaplin. Ambition: a mention in Charlie’s will.” (For those unschooled in the annals of crime, George Metesky was the Mad Bomber of New York City.)
In 1961 he toured Greece and Turkey under the auspices of the Society of Illustrators Air Force Art program, which donates paintings to the Air Force in return for transportation to bases and combat theatres around the world. Those paintings are exhibited at the Air Force Academy and the Pentagon. His companions on the trip were illustrators Robert Fawcett and James Bama (both Society Hall of Famers).
By this time he was doing record covers of classical music for the Book of the Month Club, illustrating articles for High Fidelity and Life magazines, political cartoons for the Berkshire Eagle, Christmas cards and plates for the Book of the Month Club, tapestry sets for public television’s Age of Kings series of Shakespeare’s history plays, and writing children’s books, the first of which, Double Decker, was based on the adventures his children had with a bed he designed and installed in his (unheated) Dorset house.
When the style in science fiction covers had begun to revert to realistic space opera imagery, Powers began to concentrate, out of will and necessity, on his painting, producing rich takes on landscapes, cityscapes, and non-objective imagery, as well as sculpture in delicate wire and heavy steel. He died in Spain in 1996, producing art until the very end.
Richard Gid Powers
Author and Professor, College of Staten Island, CUNY