What words would YOU use to describe art that is indescribable? It’s a challenge! In my biography of Paul Lehr (2009) I wrote that he was among the very few artists who were able to evoke the science fiction genre without depicting specific scenes from the books they illustrate. But that hardly conveys the beauty, mystery, and exoticism, of his art. Lehr (Aug 16, 1930 – July 27, 1998) may have dominated science fiction covers in the mid-1960s into the 1970s, but in his artistry he was more like a jazz musician, “who simply broke off from the expected rhythm to create these wonderful passages with paint.” (Vincent DiFate, in Visions of Never)
The works of famous “Golden Age” American Illustrators, names like Leyendecker, Wyeth, Cornwall, Parrish, Pyle – right up to and including Norman Rockwell - had one critical attribute in common: their art was consistently describable. Viewers and readers alike had no problem in understanding the realistic scenes depicted by artists of the Brandywine School of Illustration, thanks to their “classical” craftsmanship and visual storytelling. Now skip forward a few years, to the years after World War II, and the artists who gravitated to the Art Student’s League in New York City. And you find a generation of talented returning veterans using the GI Bill to attend classes, some of them taught by, or attended by, artists who would become part of what is known as the “third wave” of science fiction artists. [Since the mid-1930s, the science fiction field had remained a mix of two “waves” – artists who began as illustrators and then entered science fiction, and artists who aimed their work specifically at the science fiction field and had little interest in illustration outside the genre.]
The works of artists belonging to the “third wave” were more symbolic, more abstract, and capable of expressing the importance of innovative works of science fiction.
Soon-to-be notable Illustrators such as Robert Schulz, Jack Farragasso and Stanley Meltzoff – who attended classes alongside those Abstract expressionists and Pop artists for whom the League was the first stop in their careers (e.g., Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Cy Twombly) – were notable because they entered the genre from outside the pulp and science fiction field, without any preconceived notions about style or substance of their paintings. Meltzoff went on to teach at Pratt Institute and (you guessed it!) among his students there was Paul Lehr, who attended The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1953-1956, earning a certificate in illustration.
Lehr was raised by parents who were not artists. His father was an accountant, and Lehr himself did not speak of illustration much. “No one in our immediate family followed or read Sci-Fi, that may be why he didn’t talk about it,” says his daughter, Diana, artist and film maker, and point of contact for the Lehr estate (www.dianalehr.com). Lehr writes that he “started out determined to be become a cartoonist, working in a General Motors Plant by day – drawing gag cartoons at night, sending dozens to magazines all over the country.” It was only after “an avalanche of rejections” that he turned to illustration, enrolling at Pratt (he, too, on the GI Bill) after returning from the Korean War, where he drew maps.
After graduation from Pratt, he continued to study with Meltzoff (and noted paperback illustrator James Avati, who shared Meltzoff’s studio). He even briefly shared a studio with Meltzoff, which explains why his earliest published works show Meltzoff’s influence.
In “Visions of Never” (Vanguard, 2009), Pat and Jeannie Wilshire’s coffee-table sized homage to six illustrators notable for their fantastic art, Lehr is quoted recalling his painting class with Meltzoff. “It changed the course and direction of my life. All it takes is one — one who possesses the spark — plus the embers that are planted by others, and direction emerges from the maze. We all need a break and, as it turned out, Stanley Meltzoff provided mine. What I learned from him enabled me to turn down my own road. Hopefully, all students will meet their special teacher in the course of their studies.”
And turn down his own road, indeed, Paul did.
The move from stylized, static, and at times lurid depictions of robots, BEMS (bug-eyed monsters), rockets and saucers were in the 1950s replaced by artists new to the field who could produce cover paintings for books that major publishers could package and sell to libraries and an expanding audience of adult readers. Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books chose Richard Powers, a decade earlier, as his emissary to change the perception of science fiction from space opera to real literature.
Powers, perhaps the most influential science fiction artist of the 1950s, set a standard and style that many other artists, such as Vincent DiFate, Jack Gaughan, and Paul Lehr, continued. With Lehr being the clearest beneficiary of his influence.
Freed from the need to produce garish imagery designed to lure adolescent readers to buy magazines, Lehr soon developed his own unique voice and palette.
One of Lehr’s studio experiments ended up being his first published cover.
“I constructed spaceships out of wire, cardboard toilet paper tubes, ping pong balls and the like, making strange looking ships. I painted them silver and white, and hung them up as still lifes against dark backgrounds, shining a strong light upon them, embellishing them with stars, bursts of fire, and other bits of painterly cosmic excitement. I also bought model kits and assembled them in crazy ways. A B-17 would become a moonlander or shuttleboat.” (Visions of Never” 2009)
In a process that was to be repeated throughout his career, this first published cover (Satellite E-One) started off as personal work, a portfolio painting that his agent was able to sell to Bantam Books – the first of hundreds of paperback and hardcover SF illustrations for major publishers and famous authors, such as Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.
By the early 60s, Lehr had moved away from his early realistic depictions of spacecraft, painted mainly in monochrome shades of gray. Meltzoff’s influence would fade, as Paul’s exposure to acrylics led to a complete change in the value structure and palette in his work. Meltzoff ’s more classical, technical approach was largely abandoned in favor of the powerful color combinations that became the hallmarks of Paul’s work for the remainder of his career.
“Paul’s “strange and mysterious atmosphere” was created through the use of a visual lexicon all his own. “Paul used a vocabulary that repeated from painting to painting,” says Vincent DiFate, an award-winning illustrator and historian, who was close personal friend of Lehr’s. “The small, mannequin-like shadow figures making meaningful gestures – scale being a device he used frequently – eyeballs, spheres, and bubble cities all recur. This provided a kind of comfortable familiarity to his work, and yet it was strange and bizarre.” (Visions of Never, 2009)
Lehr worked in a variety of media, including oils, acrylics (sometimes in combination with oil), and gouache, often on masonite or wood panel, and signed every work with a scripted "Lehr". And when he wasn’t painting, he spent his time creating three-dimensional constructions that would later become an important part of his artistic output.
[Full disclosure: I represented Lehr in the sale of his original art for some years before his death so I have personally handled or at one point owned, almost all the examples of his work that I am showing here]
I once asked Paul for a quote, “tell me about your art,” I said, “how do you do it?” And in June 1998, he responded: "I try to take advantage of intuition and accidents that occur on the way to completion of a work of art. I like to be mentally free and let the subconscious enter into the creative process. Like many artists, my consciousness has been dominated by the urge to create. It has been this way since the beginning..."
"Every artist should follow their own star!" Lehr once told me, and he followed his own advice by producing original and brilliantly colored “futurescapes.” City With Eyes in Blue is a great example of this – featuring enormous egg-like or spherical objects, set against grand but barren future landscape, with the human figures, if any, scaled so as to appear dwarfed by their surroundings.
And Lehr was just as resourceful when it came to entertaining and/or horrific creatures and imagery.
But the best of Lehr’s paintings were “atmospheric . . . built around the use of saturated colors in a multiplicity of harmonies . . . highly evocative of the central themes of science fiction,” according to Di Fate, who chose Lehr’s work for the jacket cover of his important visual survey of science fiction art, Infinite Worlds (1997). The painting would become one of the last works Lehr would complete.
Like many science fiction artists, Lehr started off in the field getting whatever jobs he could. He produced cover art in other genres, mainly mysteries (and here are two examples), though it was his science fiction, fantasy and horror covers for which he is best remembered.
But once his covers started appearing on science fiction paperbacks and in magazines, he quickly became recognized as being among the very few artists who were able to evoke the science fiction genre without depicting the specific scenes from the books they illustrate. Indeed, Lehr stands out for dominating the science fiction covers in the mid-1960s into the 1970s exactly for that amazing ability!
Over those two decades, Lehr would become one of the most prolific illustrators in the history of the genre, creating hundreds of cover illustrations for every major paperback publisher in the field and producing editorial illustrations for nearly every major magazine outlet, including The Reader’s Digest, the Saturday Evening Post, Time, Life, Fortune, Playboy, Popular Science and Omni.
However, times change. When the trend in SF illustration turned to slick, figure-centric, airbrushed realism in the late 1970s, Lehr's popularity waned – although he continued to work for MacMillan, St. Martin’s Press, and Tor, and produced 11 covers for Analog magazine alone from 1978 to 1984. Was he aware of these changes, did he ever consider changing his style to try to adapt to the times?
His daughter Diana tells me that he was aware. “He went through a period of depression, “ she writes, “(but) he did not change his style. He put more time into his sculpture. He also began painting his sci-fi paintings on his own, without being hired to illustrate. These later paintings are his best. He spent much more time on them and he wasn’t constrained in any way.”
Like Richard Powers and John Berkey, who also were affected by these changes, Lehr saw art as a life-long pursuit. They produced personal works for their own pleasure, which they exhibited in public, or not; these artists just kept creating
Sooner or later, they figured, someone would come along who needed an image in a hurry – and so they kept a good supply on hand of paintings that “would work” for whatever project might come along.
Consequently, Lehr amassed a large portfolio of unpublished paintings, and because he was known for a style that “non-narrative” – like Powers – there were always paintings available for publishers to use. In fact, like Powers and Berkey, Lehr was not only extremely gifted as an artist, he was prolific. He painted . . . whether someone was paying him to do it, or not.
So, when “The Writers of the Future” invited Lehr to be one of their judges for the annual award, and have his work appear on the cover of the annual publication in 1998, he had Island City in Green in his closet, ready to be used for that purpose. Just as it had been available when Algis Budrys wanted it for his magazine, in 1994.
Typically, publishers, often acting through their art directors, commissioned the paintings for use on books and in magazines. Or, commercial artists would present their bono fides through portfolios of works they created to show off their talents, and Art Directors would decide if artist’s style of expression and artistic skills were a good match to the project at hand (whether a magazine interior or toy packaging) and if the terms of payment and delivery were acceptable, “hired the wrist,” as they would say, to do the job. A licensing agent might, or might not, have been involved in this process. Then, in due course, the artwork would be used/appear in print as called for in the contract. Typically...but not always. Although rare, there have been other avenues to publication. Sometimes, “the tail has wagged the dog.” As in this following example:
Following in the footsteps of Virgil Finlay, an artist who was known for inspiring publishers to hire authors to write stories based on art he had already created (as opposed to the usual, the reverse!), Paul Lehr’s painting The Abandoned City inspired Algis Budrys to write the short story “Jeever’s Lost World” which appeared in his science fiction magazine “Tomorrow”—and naturally featured Paul’s painting on the cover.
By the time I started representing Lehr in sales of his illustration art, the mid-1990s, he had already spent more than two decades using the time between commercial assignments to carve black walnut and cherry wood “which was abundant, as was fieldstone” on or near his rural Pennsylvania farm. “Later on (I) started to incorporate copper sheet into some of the pieces, topping them off with stone heads and inserts. Applewood became a favorite – it’s often hollow with interesting knurls, holes and protrusions...and the carpenter ants save me a lot of work... Birthcradle was carved from a huge old cherry tree that was cut down in the Orangeville Cemetary” (from his published “Gallery Talk” accompanying his exhibition “Images of the Future: Archaeological Structures and Monuments” Bloomsburg University Haas Gallery of Art, September 1996)
His sculptures are sophisticated, abstract creations that do not strike a viewer as having been produced by the same hands as his paintings. Yet they are as carefully constructed as his “otherworldly” painted renderings in oil and acrylics. In early days, Lehr would frequent junk yards and scrap yards; later he relied on good friends bringing him barrels and pails filled with discarded and spare parts from garages and farm equipment. Of these gifts, Lehr wrote “I take much pleasure and pride in the interest and generosity of (these friends) . . . I think this is what art is all about – it isn’t and shouldn’t be an elitist activity – it should be enlightening and fascinating to everybody, and reveal new ways of looking at things we take for granted. It’s shouldn’t be a mere echo of the work of the past, or a false and capricious attempt at novelty.” And I would add, that quote sounds as if it could easily stand as the summation of his personal views; an integral part of what would be his “artist’s statement”.
Lehr chose science fiction illustration because he saw it as a path to making a living and an opportunity to “depict the epic” . “War, destruction, celebration, congestion, marching armies, waving flags and banners – the strange and mysterious atmosphere of it all, rather than the literal illustration.” He was comfortable viewing himself as both an illustrator and as a fine artist, although “He was frustrated by the attitude from the art world and some of his fine art friends had that illustration was “lesser”, according to his daughter, “despite that plenty of fine artists in the pantheon of art history also did illustration.”
In contrast to the wide exposure his art received through book and magazine publications, his presence at genre conventions was infrequent, his exhibitions of both illustration and fine art were relatively rare, and his awards relatively few. He was Artist Guest of Honor at a handful of regional conventions: among them Lunacon 1992 (NY), Rivercon 1994 (KY). He was an Illustrator of the Future Judge from the inception of the contest, and was its coordinating judge from 1995 to 1998. His article on illustration “Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: Three Keys” was published in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol XII (Bridge, 1996). Lehr was winner of the 1982 Frank R. Paul Award for Excellence in Science Fiction Illustration, was twice nominated for the Hugo Award (1980, 1981) for Best Professional Artist, and won the Analog Award for Best Cover art in 1979, and 1980. In 1980 he also received a Merit Award from the Society of Illustrators (New York) for artwork done for Paramount Pictures. Lehr’s fine art has been exhibited in several Museums and galleries, among them the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Penn State University, and Bloomsburg University. His sculpture was shown at a solo exhibit at the Haas Gallery, University of Bloomsburg, 1996, and Lehr’s personal works, paintings and sculpture, were also the main feature of a 2012 exhibit "Beyond the Veil - The Three Lehr’s" at Gallery Veriditas in New Orleans and a few of his paintings were also featured in the show: X AND BEYOND in Copenhagen, in 2017.
From the time he moved to his rural Pennsylvania farm in the 1960s until his death, Lehr spent his days working in isolation, out in the old barn he used as his studio. As his daughter Diana recalls, “He worked 7 days a week. I don’t remember him ever taking a day off unless we were on a trip somewhere, which was rare.” And then in July 1998 Lehr was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died a month later, after declining treatment for the disease.
Of his attachment to the science fiction field, and his indisputable success as an illustrator, Lehr wrote (1996) “there are numerous areas of illustration. I think I would have been lousy at most of them. I feel fortunate to have found the one for me – it allowed the imagination to run free, and I could dream visually, and many publishers permitted me to do it.”
We can all be grateful that they did.
Afterword: Fans of Lehr’s work will be thrilled to know that a film documentary of his life is in the works. The project, first begun in 2015, was interrupted by the untimely death of the project’s director. But the project has been resurrected under a new creative team and we can all look forward to hearing of its completion in the near future.
Bibliography: A Biographical Dictionary: Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists of the Twentieth Century. Jane Frank (McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina, and London, 2009. p. 316-7)
“The Dreamy Atmospheres of Painter Paul Lehr” in Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Desirina Boskovich (Abrams, 2019, p. 168)
Infinite Worlds: The Fantastic Visions of Science Fiction Art. Vincent Di Fate (The Wonderland Pres, 1997) –
“Inspirations of the Id” in Visions of Never. Compiled and edited by Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire. Vanguard, 2009, pp. 10-27)