Cover Story: Richard Powers’s Pulp Surrealism

In the first installment of a series celebrating book cover art and design, Mark Dery introduces the ’50s sci fi mash-ups (Dali meets Asimov) of the extraordinary Richard Powers.

03.15.15 4:00 PM ET

Haunted moonscapes. Alien cenotaphs whose shadows stretch from here to forever, tracing the geometry of dreams. Emissaries from the unconscious, their features running like melting wax. Cancerous cities a trillion light years from now, the undifferentiated growth of their lumpy, tumorous sprawl now silent, still as a fumigated wasp’s nest. Richard M. Powers’s science-fiction book-jacket landscapes are usually depopulated but not always: sometimes, a splinter of a man—an inch-high relative of one of Giacometti’s stick figures—stands alone in the emptiness, contemplating infinity.

Richard Michael Gorman Powers (1921-1996) was the Yves Tanguy of the pop unconscious. By the ’50s, publishers who just a decade earlier had scoffed at the suggestion that Americans would be caught dead reading cheap, paperbound books were doing a land-office business in the things. Robert de Graff had launched the paperback revolution with his Pocket Books in 1939 and now publishers like Jason Epstein at Doubleday and Ian and Betty Ballantine at Ballantine Books were in the thick of it. In one of those conjunctions of commerce and art that make this nation of grifters, pitchmen, and mountebanks great, paperback publishers understood that a mass audience whose returning vets were going to college on the G.I. bill—a mass audience that would buy 2,862,792 copies of Pocket’s Five Great Tragedies by Shakespeare—was sophisticated enough to be put off by the lurid covers publishers were slapping on their wares. The time was right for visual seduction that, while still doing the job of selling books, elevated book-jacket illustration to a popular art form, using the four-by-seven cover as its canvas.

Ballantine Books

The Ballantines believed in science fiction as a literature of ideas, not gadget porn for ham-radio buffs, so when they opened their doors in 1952 they thought of Powers. His modernist sensibility, steeped in things seen at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, set him apart from the pulp-magazine style—astronauts rippling their pectorals at bug-eyed aliens while space babes cowered in fear—that had dominated the genre for decades. “One of the things that appealed to me about science fiction,” he says, in The Art of Richard Powers, “is that it was possible to do Surrealist paintings that had validity ... in their own right, and not necessarily functioning as the cover of a book.”

Initially, he paid lip service to genre conventions, sneaking his modernist sympathies in by the side door, as gaseous, abstract backgrounds for rocketships and space cadets. But as soon as he saw what he’d gotten away with, he upped the ante. His cover for Childhood’s End (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke was an industry game-changer: who knew SF readers would snap up a book whose cover features a reptilian god’s eye in a pulsating, blood-red sky, a naked man caught in its pitiless gaze? In his jacket art for A Case of Conscience (1958) by James Blish, Powers pushed the envelope of mass taste (and sales-rep tolerance) even further: a generic guy in a black suit (the priest in the story, presumably) stands, hands clasped, head bowed; a tangle of spatters and blobs writhes overhead. The contrast between the clip-art man and the Jackson Pollock nebula, or whatever it is, is startling, to say the least. In 1958, it must have been a mind-scrambler.

For Powers, there was no looking back: over the course of a career that spanned four decades and yielded 1,200 jacket illustrations for science-fiction novels, he managed to smuggle avant-gardism into what was, after all, an advertising platform. And he did so with astonishing verve and inventiveness, giving just about every trick in the art-historical grab bag a whirl: palette-knife impasto work reminiscent of De Kooning, paint dripped and spattered a la Pollock, collage, montage, wet paint folded onto itself to produce Rorschach-type blots. Hiding his experimentalism in plain sight, he explored the styles he loved (Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism) alongside realistic portraiture that revealed a breezy mastery of the commercial-art idiom, within compositions whose jazzy swing owed much to midcentury graphic design. His whittled-down figures, as mentioned earlier, are close kin to Alberto Giacometti’s brooding solitaries. His hallucinatory palette reveals his close study of the Russian-born Surrealist Pavel Tchelitchew’s luminous, dream-blurred use of color. The biomorphic shapes that sit, brooding, on his endless plains recall not only Yves Tanguy’s Surrealist dreamscapes but Henry Moore’s sculptures and the Abstract Expressionism of Arshile Gorky (“the best of them all,” in Powers’s estimation). His gas-giant abstractions, orbited by specks and streaks, are beamed back from the galaxy charted by the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta.

Ballantine Books

“He said he used ‘the visual language of Surrealism’ in his art,” his friend David Hartwell, a longtime editor and publisher of science fiction, told me. “Certainly, his early SF illustration came straight out of specific works in the Museum of Modern Art—so much so that when I first came to New York, before meeting Richard in person, I was astonished to see the obvious sources of several of his most famous early Ballantine Books covers on display there.”

This isn’t just another dispiriting example of Madison Avenue’s “conquest of cool,” as the social critic Thomas Frank calls it. Powers’s work was playfully yet seriously subversive: it stretched the parameters of popular taste; challenged the snobbish distinction between illustration (cranked out for money) and fine art (cranked out for vastly more money); violated the no-fly zone between elite taste (highbrow modernism) and mass consumption (pulp fiction); and proved the marketing department wrong in its boundless contempt for the Average Joe’s pea brain and parochial tastes. In so doing, Powers, together with illustrators like Leonard Baskin, Ben Shahn, and Edward Gorey, transformed the paperback book into a work of art anyone could own for half a buck.

— Mark Dery