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Powers, Richard M

Entry updated 9 January 2023. Tagged: Artist.

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(1921-1996) US illustrator who on occasion worked also as Richard Powers, Dick Powers, Powers Laz/Org, Richard Powers Laz/Org, R M Powers, or just plain Powers. He studied art at the Mitzen Academy of the Chicago Art Institute (1939) and at the University of Illinois in Chicago (1940), then at the University of Kentucky while undergoing basic training for the US Army. After the end of World War Two he became seriously engaged in both writing and painting: "At the end of the war my father seems to have been waiting to see which would break first, writing or art," according to his son, Richard Gid Powers, in his long biographical introduction to Jane Frank's The Art of Richard Powers (2001). Art won out. Powers had begun work in sf Illustration by 1950, his first client being Doubleday, where he also did mysteries and Westerns. His first book cover commission was for Isaac Asimov's Pebble in the Sky (1950), which tentatively anticipates his mature style, his cover a few months later for Wilson Tucker's The City in the Sea (1951), published by Rinehart, being perhaps his first entirely typical work. His first magazine covers were two for Galaxy Science Fiction in February and April 1952. In that same year, his art was featured in a four-man show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

When Ian Ballantine founded Ballantine Books in 1952 he approached Powers to do covers for him. Although his early work there was representational, in the conventional sf style of the day, as it had been at Doubleday, Powers soon, beginning with the cover for Arthur C Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), adopted a surrealist style that was much influenced by Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) and Joan Miró (1893-1983); although to modern eyes this might not seem unusual, it was a dramatic change of direction for sf book covers, creating an aura of respectability for texts where previously cover art had primarily emphasized thrills. This artistic approach rapidly became the trademark of Ballantine's 1950s sf. Powers's glowing and sometimes whimsical paintings are full of amorphous shapes, floating in space or over surreal landscapes, and have been enormously influential in sf illustration. He did a little more magazine-cover work, but most of his prolific sf cover illustration was for books – for Ballantine Books, Pocket Books, Berkley Books, MacFadden, Dell and others. Not all of his cover illustration was for sf; he worked in other fields as well, including children's books.

After the death of his first wife, Evelyn Schaeffer, in 1966, Powers's prodigious output of commercial illustration temporarily decreased, not just because of the emotional devastation but also because she had been his principal liaison with the art directors who commissioned his work, and because, anyway, he had always felt his commercial work was a distraction from his real purpose as a fine artist. In this context, he had regular one-man shows at New York's Rehn Gallery, and his work is represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. For both illustration and fine art Powers employed a diversity of media. Much of his painting was done in oils or acrylics, but he was just as willing to render illustrations in inks, woodcuts or watercolours, and his fine art might well incorporate objets trouvés.

With Richard Powers's work, the packaging of sf could be said to have come of age. Covers no longer required glamorous space girls or technological hardware, and surrealism captured sf's disturbing essence just as strongly as ray-guns or monsters. A portfolio of his work was published as Spacetimewarp: Paintings (1983). Powers's great contribution went unrecognized by either the Chesley Awards or the Hugos, but he received the Frank R Paul Award in 1983 and on 21 June 2008 was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. [PN/JG/JGr]

Richard Michael Gorman Powers

born Chicago, Illinois: 24 February 1921

died Madrid, Spain: 9 March 1996


further reading

  • Jane Frank. The Art of Richard Powers (London: Paper Tiger, 2001) with biographical introduction by Richard Gid Powers and foreword by Vincent Di Fate [nonfiction: graph: hb/Richard Powers]


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