Richard M. Powers


Richard Powers with one of his paintings.  Photo by Roy Hoopes. Richard Powers was the most skilled and inventive artist to work in the science fiction field, ever. Aside from the fact that he did more paperback covers than any other illustrator in the 1950s and 1960s, dominating the entire look of paperback sf for two decades, what he did was to introduce the visual language of surrealism into sf illustration and expand its possibilities permanently. His technical range and skill is awe-inspiring and his visionary, suggestive images continued to evolve, even into his fifth decade as a professional in the field. He did more than 800 sf paintings.

Cover of THE STARS, MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester. Shortly after the beginning of the paperback revolution, in the early 1950s, Ian Ballantine started Ballentine Books and chose Richard Powers as the artist to give his science fiction books a distinctive look. Ballentine had the radical idea that you could publish both in hardcover and paperback at once, and the early Ballentine Books had to compete both in classy bookstores (in those days bookstores sold no paperbacks) and on paperback racks in stations and drugstores. It took special art and special covers to do that and Richard Powers remained a continuing explosion of innovation throughout the decade, and then the next. His stylistic slant became so dominant and fashionable in the paperback market by the end of the 1950s that younger artists had to imitate the Powers look to sell. Both John Schoenherr and Jack Gaughan told me that they did this early in their careers.

I was a kid living in Lock Haven, PA in 1953 and had only been reading SF for a couple of years. One day I walked into the news store and the proprietor, knowing I would buy SF magazines, walked me over to the paperback rack and said I ought to try some. I bought two novels by writers whose short stories I liked, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke and More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon. I imprinted on Powers art as synonymous with wonderful science fiction. I went back and bought The Space Merchants and Star Science Fiction #1 later, also with Powers covers, and then subscribed to the monthly Ballentine release mail order to be sure to get every one. Something about the art at the time made a deep and lasting impression on me. It was better that it was not as specific as the magazine covers. It was what really good SF was really about. And remained so--The Stars My Destination (Signet) and The Sirens of Titan (Dell) both had breathtaking Powers covers. He was everywhere with the best.

Richard Powers working at his desk.  Photo by Roy Hoopes. A decade later I had learned a bit about art (and my sister Janice had become an artist) and could recognize some of what made Powers different and better than other artists. And the first time I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York I saw Powers all around me--works whose ideas he had imported into sf. When I began to attend SF conventions in the 1960s it was my dream to be able to own one of those miraculous works, and finally I was able to do so. And in meeting him my opinions of his importance to the contemporary vision of science fiction at its best were confirmed.

It is appropriate to mention that sf illustration was only a part of his artistic work--like John Schoenherr (a distinguished nature and animal painter), or Ed Emshwiller (who was internationally known as an experimental filmmaker). He did all the covers for the Dell classics line in the 1960s (portraits of great writers), he did many, many mainstream covers (for instance, the original cover for Bernard Malamud's The Natural), he did record jacket art for classical music, medical advertising illustration, and had a continuing and important career as a fine artist, with a specialty in seascapes (he's in two standard how-to books on seascape painting), and spent portion of his time on sculpture. He used to spend part of every winter in Jamaica and paint there, then in recent years spent winters in Spain with his daughter Beth and his granddaughter Adelina, also painting. He got into the biography of Kafka a few years ago and did many Kafka drawings and paintings.

He was a political cartoonist for a time for a distinguished newspaper, the Berkshire Eagle, in associationwith a column by his old friend Roy Hoopes (writing as Peter Potomac). Hoopes is a photographer and the biographer of James M. Cain and author of a number of other books. Powers also published some jazzy poetry.

Richard playing tennis Richard was a joker and a wise-cracker, given to the direct insult. He needled, in the kind of infield patter typical of a local softball game. Going out to dinner or sitting around over drinks was lively, funny, often fascinating. He grew up in Chicago, was a Golden Gloves boxer and studied at the Art Institute, then an army artist during World War II, with the Signal Corps in Astoria, Queens. After that he studied on the G.I. Bill and his brother Jack, also an artist, spent the summer once in the late 1940s on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, painting and swimming in the icy waters of the Atlantic. He was a big guy, more an athlete than an aesthete, with an echoing, brazen laugh. Say something stupid and he'd laugh and laugh and laugh.

He thrived on arguing about books and politics and ideas. There was always classical music playing in the background, or jazz (rock and folk didn't interest him), or a ball game, or one of his old Bob & Ray tapes.

Richard was my friend and the godfather of my son, Geoffrey. For more than twenty-five years I went up to his home and studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut to swim in his huge pool with a Powers monster painted on the bottom whose eyes focused on you if you stood at the tip of the diving board, to get beat at tennis and like it, drink one of Richard's creative concoctions (or have one of his frosty mugs of light beer spiced with dark beer), while Richard cajoled, heckled, insulted, commented, encouraged. It was partly Richard's encouragement that kept me publishing a poetry magazine, The Little Magazine, in the late 1970s and 1980s, for a decade after it began to lose money and take more time. Richard in his seventies didn't look a day over fifty-five and worked and played like a fit man in his forties. He took more vitamins than anyone I know, and could lecture you on the virtues of each one. He bought them in industrial size containers. Until he began to have heart problems in 1995, he always played tennis with a devotion that amounted to a compulsion. He liked to win.

Richard Powers painting We are fortunate to have had Powers in sf. Too much of the illustration done over the decades has been, simply put, unimaginative, in a field where we hold imagination as a primary virtue. But not Richard's work. He's done more respectable paintings that one would be proud to hang on the living room wall than any other artist, injected the whole language of modern art into the generally conservative field of paperback illustration, and set a standard of craft for other artists to work up to. He understood the imagery of science and technology as few other sf artists have.

He has several grandchildren, who when they were very small ordered him around a lot when they visited. He has two sons and two daughters from his first marriage (Evelyn died in 1966). He was divorced from Tina Paul, who now lives nearby with her mother. Richard Gid Powers, the oldest son, is a Pop Culture/American Lit scholar who did some first class essays on sf for the Gregg Press sf series in the 1970s. Terry (Terence) and his family and Cathy (Sarah Kathleen) and her family lived nearby, and Beth (Elizabeth), a lawyer in Madrid, and her family live in Spain, where Richard spent winters painting in recent years. He had a stroke in Spain and died the next morning, Saturday March 9, 1996.


David G. Hartwell, Pleasantville, NY

Photo credits.

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This page created by Kathryn Cramer on July 1, 1996.