You've probably seen some of the colorful, abstract book cover art of Richard Powers before, and marveled at how far it pushes the envelope of representational art. How alien it looks. Over at The Daily Beast, there's a terrific article about how Powers became such a dominant SF cover artist.
In The Daily Beast, Mark Dery writes:
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.
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."
The whole thing is well worth reading. And check out some of Powers' book covers below, for more of a sense of what we're talking about here. [The Daily Beast]