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Richard M. Powers was one the most skilled and inventive artists to work in the science fiction field. 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.
Shortly after the beginning of the paperback revolution, in the early 1950s, Ian Ballantine started Ballantine Books and chose Richard Powers as the artist to give his science fiction books a distinctive look. Ballantine had the radical idea that you could publish both in hardcover and paperback at once, and the early Ballantine 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.
It is appropriate to mention that sf illustration was only a part of his artistic work. He did all the covers for the Dell classics line in the 1960s (portraits of great writers), he did many, many mainstream covers, 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, and spent a portion of his time on sculpture. He was a political cartoonist for a time for the Berkshire Eagle newspaper, and he also published some jazzy poetry.
He grew up in Chicago where he studied at the Art Institute. He was a big guy, more an athlete than an aesthete, with an echoing, brazen laugh and was a Golden Gloves boxer. He worked as an army artist during World War II, with the Signal Corps in Astoria, Queens. After that he studied on the G.I. Bill. 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. 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.
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. He understood the imagery of science and technology as few other sf artists have.But not Richard's work. He 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 has two sons and two daughters from his first marriage (Evelyn died in 1966) as well as several grandchildren. He was divorced from Tina Paul. Richard Powers had a stroke in Spain and died the next morning, Saturday March 9, 1996.
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