The Art of Richard Powers
by Jane Frank
with Foreword by Vincent Di Fate and with A Life of the Artist by Richard Gid Powers
(Paper Tiger, $29.95 US, 128 pages, hardback; May 2001.)
When I was a grade-schooler growing up on the streets of Queens, New York in the late fifties, I worked for an hour or so each day after school at the malt shoppe/variety store located across the boulevard from the tenement in which my family and I lived. One of my job responsibilities was to keep the various spinning display racks of paperback books in neat order, and to decide which book I would place in front on each rack. I remember there were always one or two with strange covers mixed in with the large assortment of romance novels and Westerns under my charge. Covers whose pictures weren't of anything or anyone I could specifically identify, but ones that left me with an impression of what the book was about, nonetheless. Pictures that were slightly intriguing, but even more disturbing, because they all had an otherworldly, dreamlike -- no, nightmarish -- look about them. These books never made it to the front of the rack.
Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, but I was censoring Richard Powers, the most important book-cover artist of science fiction's Silver Age. And now, because Jane Frank's The Art of Richard Powers is such a fine assemblage, I have been given an appropriate opportunity to try and make amends.
You see, if The Art of Richard Powers had been a second-rate product, it would not have been easy for me to praise the artwork of this prolific innovator while pointing out the shortcomings of the publication in which it was presented. I would have done it, yes; but it would have been the critical equivalent of moving another Powers book to the back of the display rack. Rest assured that the production values used to reproduce the paintings featured throughout this edition are cutting-edge, making for an intense clarity to each example. And Frank's text, which is preceded by an informative personal biography contributed by the subject's son, is a guided tour of the work found in this book, seasoned with detailed analyses of and background information about many of the paintings within, supported by testimonials from such respected contemporary sf scholars, writers and genre-art authorities as John Clute, Ray Bradbury and Jim Steranko, to name a few. In addition, we are treated to a detailed examination of Powers's own sf creation, the city-world of fFlar. The book is unquestionably front-of-the-rack. I'm so relieved!
At 128 pages cover-to-cover, one might think of The Art of Richard Powers as a trifle; in fact, quite the opposite is true. Young Powers's aforementioned biographical chapter (which follows an affectionate foreword by colleague Vincent Di Fate) is richly detailed with events that influenced the course of his father's career. Yet, amazingly, it is compacted into just thirteen pages, liberally supported with several colourful illustrations. And it serves as an ideal set-up for author Frank's more detailed discourse on the subject's work and influences.
If sf in the late forties to the mid-sixties went through its greatest period of maturation, then there could not be a more appropriate artist to associate with this change than Richard Powers. An iconoclast by nature, Powers refused to create mundane, commercialistic artwork, "just to make a buck". Instead, he gravitated toward the surrealists of his day, especially the styles of Miró, Matta and Tanguy, and used their influence to bridge the gap between abstract painting and commercial art. With the support of the daring young publisher Ian Ballantine, Powers set the standard for science-fiction paperback artwork for years to come.
Books of the period by such authors as Arthur C. Clarke, Poul Anderson and James Blish became instantly classifiable, if not identifiable, by Powers's covers. His use of abstract shapes and forms, along with his light to medium to dark colour blends became synonymous with avant-garde creativity in the mid-fifties and extended into the psychedelic movement of the sixties.
And his abstract, surrealistic visualizations have influenced genre art beyond the publishing industry. Look at the abstract images during the opening credits of The Twilight Zone -- vintage Powers-influenced. Look at Janos Prohaska's creature creations, including The Galaxy Being and the Xenon alien for The Outer Limits and the Horta for Star Trek -- more vintage Powers. In fact, it is very difficult to see an abstract-shaped being without thinking of Richard Powers's art. He has immeasurably abstract-shaped the direction of science-fiction creativity.
But, first and foremost, Richard Powers was a creator of fine art, of mood-inducing paintings. And the painter and his paintings are really what The Art of Richard Powers celebrates.
124 intensely sharp reproductions of Powers's artwork have been appropriately arranged throughout the book. Such recognizable works as On the Beach (cover for 1957 novel by Neville Shute), a study of desolation fronted by a faceless nude in shades of brown; and Budrys's Inferno (cover for the 1963 collection by Algis Budrys), a depiction in abstract of an alien home world in fiery reds and pinks. And lesser-known but strikingly representative pieces such as Untitled #582, a rectangular microcosm of a stark, multilevel civilization in mustard/gold and blue/aquamarine, spread out over two pages. Each is as delightful as it is intriguing.
Jane Frank founded the sf and fantasy art agency Worlds of Wonder in 1991. She and her husband Howard are reputed to have built up the largest collection of fantasy and sf art in the world. She was an acquaintance of Richard Powers. Her writing only slightly reflects this familiarity. While analytical in her expository, Frank's respect for her subject is evident in every paragraph. It is a quality that helps to make this book crackle.
But the real electricity in The Art of Richard Powers originates from the artist himself. His work is a study in shape, colour, mood and individual interpretation. The informative, analytical text is the truest homage its author could have paid her subject. And maybe, in an odd way, I was paying Richard Powers my own homage when I hid his cover art in the back of the bookrack. After all, I probably reacted the way he meant me to. Besides, what could a grade-schooler from the streets of New York have been expected to know about abstract surrealism, anyway...
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© Randy M Dannenfelser 16 June 2001