After commenting a bit about John Picacio’s artwork a few days ago, and also admitting my relative ignorance of the history of science fiction cover art, Picacio suggested via e-mail that I might want to take a look at the work of Richard Powers, who did hundreds of SF covers, primarily in the 50s and 60s. I went on eBay and found The Art of Richard Powers in relatively short order, so I bought it and it arrived also in reasonably short order (if you’re not willing to buy a book, there’s a collection of his covers online here).
Seeing Powers work, of course, made me realize that I did know him, or at least his work, although I have to say that by the time I started reading SF in volume, in the early 80s, his time had pretty much gone, and it seems like the work that he was producing at the time (like this cover of Heinlein’s Friday) bowed to certain possibly self-loathing aesthetic imperatives of the time, which I suspect amounted to “make this look as craptacular as possible. And add boobs.”
Again, I could be wrong about this, but I seem to remember the 1980s being a particularly bad time for science fiction cover art, a time in which airbrushed mammaries had their ascendency, an esthetic from which we are only now beginning to get away from. This was a difficult time to try to convince non-SF readers to read SF because the cover art was so lame; I remember buying a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land — the one with the Carl Lundgren cover — for a friend of mine as a Christmas present and begging her to ignore the cover (I did the same when I gave someone the Lundgren-covered Time Enough for Love as well (The current cover for Stranger is slightly better).
The issue for me with both books was not the nudity (that would have been ironic, considering what goes on in the books), but just the whole tacky presentation, and the fact that the covers to me missed most of what the books were about. The best cover for Stranger is still probably the original, which rather intelligently highlighted the Rodin sculpture which Heinlein used as a metaphor for his main character (the original cover for TEFL, with women sprouting out of Lazarus Long’s Speedoed body, is not so great).
The main body of Powers’ SF work has almost nothing to do with the 80s airbrushed boobmania, which is to be considered a good thing. Powers trafficked in surrealism — impossibly-designed structures and creatures that were evocative of the contents in the books without being an explicit analog to a particular event in the book. The covers are definitely dated — you couldn’t look at a Powers cover and not have it evoke a certain era of SF illustration which is now gone — but it’s worth noting that it was a good era in SF illustration.
Perhaps based on my early experiences trying to offer SF to non-readers in the 1980s, I definitely do look at SF book covers from the point of view of “are normal people going to be embarassed to be seen reading this book?” Again, no offense to Carl Lundgren (whose other work, particularly his rock posters, is pretty cool), but his covers — and most SF covers of the 80s — seem designed only to appeal to one crowd, which would be teenaged boys who wouldn’t know what to do with a breast even if they got to hold one. I mean, I was one of those teenage boys in the 1980s, so in one sense, fair enough. They got me. But I do think as a consequence there were a lot of missed opportunities to draw in other readers, and I think it’s probably also fair to say SF is still suffering from what this sort of artwork said about the genre and how it saw itself (among, to be fair, a number of other issues).
Powers’ work, on the other hand, seems more open to different readers, as does more of the work of the current generation of cover artists, Picacio included. To speak to Picacio’s work specifically, many of the people on his covers are no less nude than the girls on the covers of 80s science fiction, but it’s a more artful sort of nude, attempting to evoke more than just the “look! nipples!” response (it’s also a more egalitarian sort of nude, as men seem to be nude as often as women, which I think matters).
Picacio’s work, and the work of many of the current generation of SF illustrators, can’t be seen as a direct line descendant of Powers’ work, at least not as a matter of technique. But what I think you can see — and which I applaud — is more of an attempt to evoke the spirit of the work the cover represents, rather than lay out a pedestrian illustration of some climactic scene or imagine the main female character in some filmy stage of undress.
To be clear, cover art has to fulfill a commercial end; it has to sell the book. But you can sell a book a lot of different ways. One way is with boobies; another way is with brains. Powers’ work was the latter, I think, and I’m glad to see that particular idea making inroads in the current generation of SF cover illustrators.