The science fiction book art of Richard Powers

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41 Responses to “The science fiction book art of Richard Powers”

  1. Antinous says:

    Most years there’s a vendor at the Modernism Show here in Palm Springs who sells original artwork for paperbacks. It’s usually a mix of SF, spy, detective, pulp and outright porn with a bunch of concept drawings for futurist cars thrown in. In some cases, you get the original art plus a copy of the book. Seriously droolworthy stuff.

  2. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Takuan, the fact that we bumped up Pipenta’s comment doesn’t mean we love you any less.

    Antinous, we did some thinking about whether to have comments on comments. The deciding factor was that allowing them could split active conversations.

    MikerBaker, did you not notice the part where I said I didn’t repost Pipenta’s comment as a way of pursuing the argument?

    Dark Victoria, I’m not at all surprised that you can spot the difference. What Pipenta said was that just looking at an artist’s work cold was not enough to tell you whether or not they do drugs.

    Jeff (34), how is it that a non-drug-user is so certain of that point? And why is it so important to you?

  3. Jeff says:

    Moderator, do you want to have a private talk via email? You know my address, so you go first. A serious disscusion would be welcome, but only if you play nice. No more low blows.

  4. mikerbaker says:

    Geez, I thought we’d all grown past flame wars. I’m not seeing anything productive going on here – just a bunch of jeering and name-calling. And while I agree with Pipenta’s comment 100%, I think reposting it on the front page might be a little petty and certainly unconstructive in stopping the flames. Jeff himself said he was trolling a bit. That should be a red flag to ignore his comment and move on.

    That said, Pipenta wanted to see some titles with the art – check this out:
    http://members.cox.net/sjrohde/index_scifi_a_c.html

    I think Richard Powers is terrific. And I’m neither a hippie nor on drugs. :)

  5. Stuart Ellis says:

    Man or Astro-man? used one of his paintings for their first record…

  6. Stuart Ellis says:

    Dabnabbit. There was supposed to a picture under that comment.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Isitmanorastroman.jpg

  7. tomaq says:

    In the Chuck Jones classic “Rocket Squad” starring Daffy and Porky, there is an awesome visual reference to Powers’s art about halfway through.

  8. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Jeff, you think Richard Powers’ art is evidence that he was a druggie? Cheez Louise! No wonder your science fiction doesn’t sell.

    I’ve always loved Powers’ art, and was delighted to get to visit his studio on one occasion. He was a tall, rangy, muscular guy, and he had that kind of intelligent no-nonsense attitude you see in a lot of successful artists. Underlying his semi-abstract designs was solid draftsmanship and a thorough knowledge of his craft. I wish you could see the originals — old four-color repro just isn’t all that accurate.

    For me, Powers’ art will always be what science fiction looks like. I appreciate the hell out of other artists working in the genre, but with them, my brain keeps getting in the way. Powers’ illustrations go straight for my heart. They say “science fiction” before my mind can form the words.

    Another thing I’ve always liked is rocks, but I put at least part of the blame for my love of figured jaspers (Morrisonite, Bruneau, Biggs, Owyhee, Willow Creek, etc.) on the fact that they remind me of Richard Powers covers. After I discovered them and had been researching them for a while, a old memory slowly drifted up out of the depths: how very many rocks there were around Powers’ studio. Unfortunately, by then it was too late to ask him, so I’ll never know.

  9. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Well said, Mark.

    Jeff, I’m guessing you think those are unanswerable questions. They aren’t.

    How does a stupid opinion about something as subjective as art correlate with selling one’s writing? Or not?

    Simple. Back in comment #2, after hypothesizing that Powers was a druggie, you said:

    “Really, some of that art illustrates those stories with very little regard for the science and more to do with weirdo images marketed to the kind of hippy goofs that were reading that stuff.”

    That tells me a lot about you right there, starting with the fact that you weren’t previously familiar with Richard Powers’ art. That means there’s a long and structurally essential period in the history of science fiction that you’ve never read. There weren’t all that many SF books published back in those days, and a great number of them had Richard Powers covers.

    Second, that line about “the kind of hippy goofs that were reading that stuff” tells me that (a.) you don’t even recognize the approximate period of that cover art (further evidence that you have no grounding in the history of the genre); and (b.) you have neither respect for nor acquaintance with SF’s core audience. You can’t be a good writer if you never spare a thought for your audience, and you can’t be a successful one if you don’t respect them. The readers can see you. It’s one of their gifts.

    Third, you referred to the covers “illustrating the stories,” and you objected to the art on the grounds that it had “very little regard for the science.” If you think that book covers illustrate the books they cover, I have to wonder how many you’ve read. Jackets and covers occasionally match the information in the interior text, but the relationship is usually more thematic.

    Complaining that the art has inadequate regard for the science tells me that you haven’t looked at much science fiction from any period. There is science in SF, but not much of it gets onto the cover. Everybody’s happy when it does, of course, but that’s not the outcome to bet on.

    Have you ever wondered why the primary editions of Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide have cyclopaean futuristic landscape-objects on their covers, when that’s not what the books are about? It’s because if they illustrated the content (including the science), Ender’s Game would look like a screenshot from a shoot-’em-up video game, and Speaker and Xenocide would show unremarkable humans on a scruffy planet where the locals look kind of like pigs. Cool science is usually cool in its implications, and those don’t adapt well to being illustrated.

    Taken all together, what it tells me that you’re one of those people who tries to write science fiction without reading much of it, which doesn’t work, and who doesn’t respect the literature or its audience, which doesn’t work either.

    Maybe I left too many steps in the equation as an exercise for the reader, but my conclusion wasn’t arbitrary.

    Onward.

    …Look, I was expressing an opinion, one that I made to stimulate conversation…trolling a bit.

    In my experience, people who say they were just trying to stimulate the conversation are usually in the process of explaining why they were acting like jerks.

    But my comment wasn’t pointed at you. I didn’t say, “If you like this guy’s stuff, you’ve got poor taste.”

    What you did was take one look at the work of a very good artist and announce that it must have been the result of drug-induced derangement. You thought it was a safely snotty thing to say. What you didn’t count on was how much your reaction would tell me about you. (I already knew that you write fiction, and that it doesn’t sell. You’ve been telegraphing that since you got here.)

    To write is to be read. That window you open for the readers works both ways.

    So, for you to take the opportunity to poke my eye with a stick seems a little mean spirited to me. A personal attack I might say.

    You were denigrating Richard Powers’ work for the sake of a little cheap trollage, and implicitly saying that those of us who like it aren’t as insightful as your own hip self, but you think it’s mean-spirited of me to use your remarks to diagnose your degree of acquaintance with SF and its effect on your writing career?

    Malarkey. I caught you flat-footed, and you’re casting around for some other reason to feel as indignant as you do.

    If I ever mount a personal attack on you, you won’t be saying “seems,” and wondering whether that’s what’s going on.

    Yes, to me it looks weird enough to be drug-induced. Probably because an artist I know paints very much like this, and he uses drugs when he paints.

    I could probably find someone who paints just like you, only she’s a girl. With some work, I could probably find one who speaks only Indonesian. From this, I would be entitled to conclude …?

    Mostly pot, but acid once in a while. I own some of it. I went the the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, and I worked with a good deal of drug users. And non-users. I was a non-user.

    Are you telling me this because you’re reverting to the “he must have been using drugs” theory, or are you still sticking with “I was trolling”?

    I still paint, and just sold a piece. So, my writing might suck ass and not sell, but my paintings do. Would you like to see one that just sold for a nice sum? I’ll be glad to email a picture of it to you. Then you can tell me it sucks.

    Why should I do that? I haven’t seen it yet.

    Remember to send a copy to Mark when you’re sending one to me.

    Hey, while we’re at it, let me email you a short story and you can post a “Why Jeff’s writing sucks” comment. That would be fair.

    Again, I fail to see the point. And I didn’t say your writing sucks. I said I could see why you aren’t selling science fiction.

    And now, just to please you, I will promise to never make a stupid drug-use comment again.

    That would please me. Thank you, and I accept your offer.

    Now: shall we forget this contretemps, and go forward on a better footing?

  10. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    “It looks like the kind of thing drug addicts produce.”

    Are an expert on this subject, Jeff?

  11. Another Aaron says:

    If you love Heinlein so much, why did you refer to him in such a negative manner then?

    And yes, it’s pretty clear you have a negative view of “the counter culture”.

    And I’m still not convinced you’ve read anything by him, Mr. Internet Tough guy.

  12. Another Aaron says:

    Wow, someone posts a “Hey, look at this artwork!” post, and you post a comment essentially saying, “Bah, it’s hippy drug crap!”

    Really, what did you think was going to happen?

    You obviously didn’t read very much Heinlein either…yeah, some of his work got caught up in all that “hippy stuff”, but if that’s all got out of it, you didn’t read very much of it.

    Or at least I hope so, otherwise your reading comprehension skills suck.

  13. dark victoria says:

    Whoa. flame-war aside i find it ironic that i’m in my art studio a sitting down to do some of the mundane daily chores that facilitate making art and having just done a bong -hit. i would have to say that drugs definitely affect my art making. mostly i’d say this is reflected strongest in the permissions i give myself as to what to make. i find i censor myself less and invest more humor and actually more of my daily self when i work stoned for long periods. i don’t always smoke pot in the studio nor do i do it every day. when i do i find that it helps me slip over to the kind of generalized consciousness that i need to be able to problem solve on a grand scale. i do however find that working on drugs creates a catch-22. while i sometimes need the obsessive focus that pot gives me, mostly to do all the boring busy-work, i find that it can lead to long bouts alone in the studio and less contact with the real world. it helps me work but makes me crazy and keeps me away from outside stimulus. i use it cautiously. anyway, Richard Powers work has always reminded me of Pavel Tchelitchew (b. 1898) who was a russian surrealist artist. he was also the boyfriend of Charles Henri Ford who made some of the first psychedelic art long before the 60′s were invented. they were both also friends of Jean Cocteau who was famously addicted to opium. so, chances are that if Powers didn’t take drugs he was, at least in my opinion, taking visual cues from someone who most likely did.

  14. Chang says:

    My man saw himself some Yves Tanguy obvisouly. Dang!

  15. Jeff says:

    The Moderator said, “Jeff, you think Richard Powers’ art is evidence that he was a druggie? Cheez Louise! No wonder your science fiction doesn’t sell.”

    How does a stupid opinion about something as subjective as art correlate with selling one’s writing? Or not? You think I might be narrow minded? Do you think writers are beyond making hyperbolic comments? Look, I was expressing an opinion, one that I made to stimulate conversation…trolling a bit. But my comment wasn’t pointed at you. I didn’t say, “If you like this guy’s stuff, you’ve got poor taste.” So, for you to take the opportunity to poke my eye with a stick seems a little mean spirited to me. A personal attack I might say. Yes, to me it looks weird enough to be drug-induced. Probably because an artist I know paints very much like this, and he uses drugs when he paints. Mostly pot, but acid once in a while. I own some of it. I went the the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, and I worked with a good deal of drug users. And non-users. I was a non-user. I still paint, and just sold a piece. So, my writing might suck ass and not sell, but my paintings do. Would you like to see one that just sold for a nice sum? I’ll be glad to email a picture of it to you. Then you can tell me it sucks. Hey, while we’re at it, let me email you a short story and you can post a “Why Jeff’s writing sucks” comment. That would be fair. And now, just to please you, I will promise to never make a stupid drug-use comment again.

  16. cuvtixo says:

    Recently I saw a documentary on Frank Frazetta– also an athletic guy who also illustrated many science-fiction book covers. The “Conan” publishers found provocative artwork can sell a book (Franzetta did a lot of muscle-bound men and scantily clad women– it is admittedly well-done eye-candy, if not high-brow) As a kid, it really bothered me that these sci-fi and fantasy covers did not truly represent the writing. Unfortunately for both the visual artists and the readers, the marketplace doesn’t respect the “purity” of any medium, so we takes what we can get.
    Perhaps a notable thing for boingboing readers is that with the availability of the internet for reviews for books (judging by cover was necessity back them) and graphic novels competing for those readers deliberately seeking visual art, the end of mismatched sci-fi cover art may be ending.

  17. Splendor says:

    @13 You were obviously high when you wrote that Pipenta.

  18. Scraps says:

    It’s true that Powers had a huge part in defining the look of 1950s science fiction art, but Ed Emshwiller also deserves credit (though Emshwiller painted in more commercial styles in addition to his abstract stuff).

    Chang, Powers would have been pleased to be compared to Tanguy. I had the opportunity to tell him how much I loved his work and how much it reminded me of Tanguy, and he thanked me for not saying it reminded me of Dali.

    Jeff, it’s very unlikely that the art was marketed to hippies or acidheads or had anything to do with the drug culture, inasmuch as the heyday of Powers (and the abstract style in science fiction) was the 1950s.

  19. Mark Frauenfelder says:

    I would love to see your art, Jeff. I promise not to say anything about it publicly, if that’s your wish. My email is mark@boingboing.net.

  20. Chang says:

    Scraps, That’s cool! I love Tanguy’s work and Powers really nailed it. He made it his own while obviously drawing a certain influence.

  21. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Splendor, please don’t be a dork.

  22. Jeff says:

    Teresa, you get to do want you want here, but I find that your level of defense is a bit much. I also think it’s in poor taste. Did you really need to do a re-post of this? To me this speaks about some issues that have very little to do with a few stupid comments about art. Really, you want to talk about the kind of hippies that took Heinlein’s stuff a little to close to heart? I’ve read a lot of sf that was re-published in anthologies. I’ve got a pretty good background in it, but I haven’t read everything. And either have you. So, my comments on cover art don’t reflect what I’ve read. I’m really sorry if I offended you, that wasn’t my intent. I was making some provocative comments to stir the pot, not cause a war. And saying that my writing doesn’t sell because of the reasons you gave really didn’t impress me as factual in basis, but rather slanted. I think what you said took it to a personal level and I don’t really know why you had to do that. If you wanted to put me in my place, I guess you have. And I’m not sure where you email address is.

  23. Takuan says:

    “From time to time we’re going to be promoting especially wonderful comments ”

    well! if you want me to go, you need only say! “Wonderful”, next it’ll be “Quality”, “thoughtfulness” “care”…..

  24. Jeff says:

    Takuan, if anyone’s wonderful comments should be REPLAYED it’s yours.

  25. Jeff says:

    Mark, yes. I have enough experience with artists to have formed an opinion. Absinth, pot, alcohol, acid…

    Drug-induced art is nothing new. And I know plenty of artists that aren’t drug users–their art is far more mundane. Beautiful perhaps, but mundane.

  26. Antinous says:

    Yeah. You might want to work on the capitalization and punctuation for posterity’s sake. I’m just sayin’.

  27. Jeff says:

    Dark Victoria, some of Powers’ stuff reminds me of some of Kadinsky’s work. I was making a snarky comment, but it was more about marketing than the actual art itself. I’ve studied the drug culture of the late 50s and 60s, reading Tim Leary and Robert A. Wilson and others. I know the art of the time was influenced by the transforming culture that took off on the west cost and in the village in New York. Anyone that was part of the scene was using drugs, including a LOT of artists. Thanks for sharing. What you said sounds a lot like what I’ve heard from other productive artists that use. Now, to go buy some paint. Water colors from Britian are getting very expensive!

  28. Jeff says:

    “One person in particular who incited his wrath was Richard M. Nixon. His son wrote that, “He loathed Nixon as soon as he learned he existed.”

    How can you loath someone as soon as you learned they exist? Maybe the moderator can explain that skill. It sounds a little crazy to me. Maybe induced by too much love, peace, harmony, Christianity, but not other things that I’ve promissed not to talk about :) (see, I’m smiling, having fun. Now it’s your turn.)

  29. Dr Nathan says:

    My interest in Powers is the work he did for Berkley Publishing, specifically the covers of 14 JG Ballard paperbacks. While generally lauded as a pioneer in SF art circles, his covers for JGB’s collections and novels seem to be either nonchalantly surreal or oddly inappropriate.

    If I had to choose favourites, I like the work he did on both editions of The Drowned World, and the 1977 edition of The Wind From Nowhere. The images do correspond to the plot, but the “JGB-ness” of the story is misread by Powers’ proclivity to illustrate fear and horror in the body language of the people he shows. The rest of his covers are either silly or dumb. Silly, like his misreading of The Burning World, almost immediately renamed The Drought, no doubt to erase Powers’ misleading cover image of humanity running for high ground while a city lies below them, engulfed in flames. You think he would have at least had the opportunity to read an overview of the plotline.

    The rest of the covers feature “surreal” images, which appear to be random choices from Powers’ vast storehouse of unsold paintings. Do I like them? Not really. They have a borrowed feel to them, as if Powers was content to merely re-interpret what had gone on before. They seem devoid of meaning — there’s no uncanny feeling. It’s ironic, therefore, that these quasi-surreal images would be chosen to illustrate JGB’s book covers, given Ballard’s fondness and appreciation of the real thing.

    For the complete article, plus scans of his Ballard covers, go to:
    http://www.rickmcgrath.com/jgballard/jgb_powers_covers.html

  30. Nebodin says:

    Not long ago boingboing’s own Cory posted a link to: http://xkcd.com/386/

    Duty calls eh guys?

  31. Teresa Nielsen Hayden / Moderator says:

    Jeff, I swear I promoted it because I thought she said interesting things about artists and how they work.

  32. Antinous says:

    Hey! No swearing!

    How come we can’t comment on the comment from the comments? I thought that this was an uberblog.

  33. Jeff says:

    “You obviously didn’t read very much Heinlein either…”

    Aaron, are you as smart as you think you are? I highly doubt it. You seem to think you have mind reading skills too. Lucky little monkey.

    The only things that’s obvious is I have nothing better to do than respond to posts like yours. I’ve read all of Heinlein, and how you would know different beats the shit out of me. If you pick up a re-issue of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars you will find an essay of mine that I wrote from the heart. Look for J.J. Minor, it’s in there and I’m very pround of those few paragraphs because I love Heinlein. And in my earlier post, I was refering specifically to the effect of Stranger in a Strange Land. You know how well that was liked by the counter culture, don’t you?

  34. Takuan says:

    guess I should cut the covers off all those old magazines and frame them

  35. cbmills says:

    “I can assure you that there really is no noticeable difference between artwork made by drug users and artwork made by non-drug users.”

    I propose live, improvised as an exception.

  36. Pipenta says:

    These look so dang familiar. I read a lot of science fiction back in the sixties and seventies. I picked up a lot of it secondhand. I know I’ve had books with this cover art. I wish there were examples of what they looked like as finished book designs. I’d love to see the titles.

    @ #2 About drug addicts…

    Jeff, I think you are huffing something.

    Having attended a couple of big-name art schools back in the day (and by back in the day, I mean in the late 70′s when drug use was common and open) and having visited and met artists from a number of other art schools during that time, I can assure you that there really is no noticeable difference between artwork made by drug users and artwork made by non-drug users.

    We could fill a gallery the size of Grand Central Station with art, half by people who never touched drugs and the other half by people who “inhaled”. You would not have any clue. You’d have no way of telling which was which.

    I’m not saying that substances get mixed up with chemistry don’t effect art output. I’m saying you could not tell. There is no consistent style, or technique, no way you could tell. No more than you could tell from reading a passage of text if the writer had been drinking.

    Being an artist, doing art, involves operating at many levels. There’s a cocktail of components such as learned skills, physical dexterity, life experience, personality, perceptual ability and more. Those are just off the top of my head. Someone who does a lot of their art, be it visual or musical, dance or theater or the written word, has a lot going on when they do it. Some processes are very much the active here and now, some are happening at a deeper intuitive level. The latter are where your history and training and experience come in to play.

    Some folks, folks who either cannot or will not do art, see artists as savant, mystical or idiot. It isn’t magic. It isn’t one process happening. Art is not the same combination of processes for everyone.

    And stoners don’t necessarily make paintings like these.

  37. cbmills says:

    Whoops, meant to say live, improvised MUSIC.

  38. HunterJames says:

    I’m curious why it is such an issue if an artist uses drugs or not. Whether on drugs or not, all artists are expressing something real. I would imagine if someone is uncomfortable with a particular expression, it is easier for them to say: “That artist is on drugs” as opposed to being with the real discomfort that the work brings up in them. Are we that uncomfortable being disturbed? I like Richard Powers’ work because it displays aspects of my being which aren’t often recognized or acknowledged. The interesting question for me is, how much of your own being are you comfortable with? Thanks Richards for expanding that comfort zone in me.

  39. arkizzle says:

    see, I’m smiling, having fun. Now it’s your turn

    ..from the lips of a mother, through gritted teeth – with venom – to her husband, eyes wild as she drags 3 crying children by the hand, through the carnival, past the stalls and rides they wanted to go on, toward the dark waiting cliff edge..

  40. Jeff says:

    It looks like the kind of thing drug addicts produce. I think this guy was a pot head. Or an acid fiend. Really, some of that art illustrates those stories with very little regard for the science and more to do with weirdo images marketed to the kind of hippy goofs that were reading that stuff.

  41. Takuan says:

    don’t tell anyone, but a little idiosyncratic literary incompetence is one way to establish a “fist” (ie: watermark). Plus, it’s less work. And, like the skink’s tail,it gives predators something inconsequential to munch on. Devious, ne?

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