In 1983, empowered by his publisher, Nelson Doubleday, Inc., Richard M. Powers –known for his unique “bio-organic” surrealist science fiction illustrations – found a platform for taking his audience on a remarkable journey into an imaginary, nonsensical city-world called “fFlar”.
The place was located in some phenomenally distant future, and/or parallel universe, which keeps its own time, so that Powers’ remembrances of events could be recorded A.F. (After fFlar). It was a grand opportunity for him to carry out the aims of surrealism, by linking thematically science fictional images with outrageously absurd text. Several of Powers’ finest paintings, a majority of them seen earlier on book jackets, were chosen for this ambitious project. The outcome was a handsome unbound portfolio of prints titled Spacetimewarp: Paintings by R.M. Powers, advertised as “16 FULL-COLOR PAINTINGS OF fFLAR and fFLARIANS SUITABLE FOR FRAMING”.
The cover of the portfolio, an attractive graphic collage featuring portions of his personal (unpublished) painting The City Of Hyper-Ur set the stage for what the descriptive text on the cover, without preamble or explanation, tells viewers will be
“Absurreal Algorithm(s). Bivariates. Parapsychotic Landscapes with Figures, Many of Them Visible. Alternate/Simultaneous Universes with Metamorphic Transfigurations. Sublimations. Subversions. Retinal Therapy.”
This was followed by a wholly fictive “explanatory” inner blurb printed on the portfolio’s folder pocket (overleaf) also supplied by the artist, writing as “Lev T. The Poet McCoy-McCohen”, and it captures the essential nature of Powers’ language:
“SPACETIMEWARP: The destabilization of the concept of the Time as a function of space, which the astral-guru/physicist G [V.K. Gynzbyrdd, Ph.D. Lazarus Professor of Quasarguruing, Sacred heart University, Bridgeport, Connecticut] first introduced in to the Metamanual of Infraquasiarian Zen, has led to the isolation of spacetimewarp as the underlying function of simultaneous/Alternate Universe Projection.”
The portfolio of sixteen reproductions was published on sturdy, glossy paper and in a size (13.5” x 10.75”) that, indeed, provided wonderful images ‘“suitable for framing”’ (unlike the wrapper, which did not age well), and all text and captioning was written by Powers, with seemingly little or no editing by the publishers.
By all accounts, the publication of the portfolio created an altogether new context for his art, as well as providing a vehicle for Powers’ considerable – but untapped - literary talents. In the captions he produced for the paintings Powers showed his genius in harnessing the traditions of surrealist art, and writing to reach a wider audience than he enjoyed within the narrow confines of science fiction illustration. And, as Powers must have known, Surreal art is rooted not only in the visually, but the verbally absurd.
In the grand tradition of surrealism, Powers leveraged his love of verbal jousting, puns, and plays on words and artist’s drive to change, innovate and experiment, to create “fFlar” - the perfect intellectual construct, as he himself admits in the blurb: “It is a useful coincidence that this mythopoetic adumbration involves the kind of aesthetics that has long bemused contract-artist R.M. Powers.”
The effect of fFlar on his audience was both gratifying and amusing to Powers; the more seriously we took his "World of fFlar", the happier a man he was. While according to members of his family, it was probably begun as an intentionally loose concept, one that he could play with and adapt to encompass a number of paintings he had done, or started, in the mood of science fictional landscapes, the fiction served well as a marketing tool to describe “older” images that art directors might consider “old-fashioned”- ‘too sixties” – or too “fifties” and therefore might profit from re-labeling.
Powers happily obliged, by portraying the Portfolio as a single story told in 16 (17, if you include the cover) illustrations even though the very first painting reproduced in the portfolio, The Ur-City of fFlar, cropped on the right, began life in 1958 as the cover to the fourth in a popular digest anthology series Star Science Fiction, edited by Frederik Pohl. And the same image served further duty, cropped on the left side this time, as the cover for The Deep by John Crowley, published by Berkley, 1976.
This use, and re-use of imagery, I should add, was common for Powers’ – who excelled in “re-purposing” his art, both to gain monetarily from additional usages, but also to save time. He had no qualms about cutting up and pasting portions of existing artworks in order to fashion “new” illustrations, and publishers either didn’t realize it, or didn’t care. Not only the images themselves, but also certain compositional elements, can be spotted on other covers, as if both publishers and Powers himself enjoyed creating variations on a favored theme . . . and there are fans of Powers’ art who make a sport out of discovering such connections. The humorous caption for The Ur City of fFlar indeed suggests that Powers was well aware of several uses to which one painting could be put:
"The Artist’s first rendition of this alternate Universe, painted on the spot during the year 6018 A.D. (21,209,868 A.F.). The figure in the foreground, signaling to countrymen from the yoke of the Oppressor-Orb and worked the Yeast Mines with intergalactic bankers (most of whose names would be eminently recognizable if one were ill-advised enough to mention them).”
This kind of fun was greatly appreciated by the science fiction community of the day, most of whom were already well acquainted with Doubleday, as long time, loyal members of their Science Fiction Book Club (begun 1953) and so were overjoyed to see the portfolio distributed as a book club premium. Fans gladly joined in the sport of puzzling out the “insider” meanings sprinkled liberally throughout, they loved Powers’ gently self-deprecating and humorous style, they were in tune with the way Powers poked fun at himself, the establishment, literary conventions, and social institutions he clearly wished we did not hold so dear.
Through his captions he introduced audiences to his penchant for subversive, alternative iconography – a fancy way of saying that the artist loved to make sport of conventional myths, to make word and picture associations that were clever, and intellectually provocative.
He must have enjoyed re-titling the cover art he produced for Particle Theory, a collection of science-fictionally themed short stories, published in 1981 (Plate #2). The art was originally created to illustrate one of the stories in this collection, called “The Thermals of August” about future Colorado residents who ritually court and battle in mechanical hang- gliders.
For the portfolio, Powers re-named it fFlarian Aviandrogyne – a title that exploits the alliterative and associative aspects of fFlarian (flying) and Avian (bird-like) while yet resisting the obvious figurative aspect by blending into the whole, the playful (an)‘drogyne’, described thus in the caption:
“apparently predominantly female, painted as it hovered over the city on a day the artist designates as the “œ øπ 21- ∑th of ∆y, 17,700,426, A.D.”
Powers' captions are full of plays on words and the sounds of words, puns and alliteration galore, parodying the conventions of a generation of science fiction readers. As an example, the fine painting he originally created 1968 for use on John D. MacDonald’s Wine of the Dreamers (Plate #3), that carries the title and caption:
”Gog-fFlar, Quasarquark of fFlar, Gog of Magog, God of Goads, Goad of Goats, Guard of Groans, Groan of Groins, Gert of Frobes, Frobe of Forces; painted as it received a pledge- of ten quasartalents from the awed Painter” (-later reneged)
The shapes in the painting, the delicate skeletonic figures and abstract transparent amoeba-like bodies, are identifiably Powers’, but we do not gain understanding of their meaning from the title, nor the caption – nor are they meant to help us in that. The power of the words, though, is such that they carry us along, so that we get caught up in Powers’ free-associational rhythm and rhyme and repetitive word play.
This use of language puts us into a kind of trance-like frame of mind, able to tap into our unconscious, and open to having the kind of fun with words that Powers’ intended. It has other “meta-meanings” also, beyond the literal playfulness, because it shows how very intellectually capable Powers was. For example, he exploits our respect for what linguists call “nominalization”, the way we use (or give) proper names to things in order to give credence and tangibility to the thought.
In this wonderfully verbal and superficially nonsensical way, Powers was able to demonstrate for modern audiences the essence of what Surrealists called “automatic writing” – which freed words from ordinary usage, by focusing on the sight and sounds of words, as much as their meaning. Surreal visual artists used this characteristic of automatic writing and speaking to enable them to make images automatically, in that sense also freeing the mark from its ordinary descriptive or denotational uses.
Of Tanguy’s style of Surrealism (Powers’ most notable influence), he said in an interview with Vincent Di Fate (Algol, #29-#30, 1977) “I think that his symbolism is much more the real stuff that influences us without our being aware of being influenced. It's something that even if you do analyze it, it still eludes you.” This same observation might be applied to fFlar, to this painting, and to its caption.
The Game of fFlar, seen as Plate #5 in the Portfolio, is one of those paintings that work well whether they are given outlandish captions, or not. The artwork was formerly published as a magazine cover (Analog, September, 1978 for the lead story by Spider and Jeanne Robinson titled Stardance II). But what is interesting is how Powers strived in so many instances to link – however tenuously – the subject matter to some outlandish fFlar-related idea that was grounded in topical events, so as to enable readers to understand the context.
For The Game of fFlar, for example, Powers took the opportunity of the caption to satirize youth’s fascination with video games, which by the early 80s were replacing pinball machines as a popular pastime. The description reads: “Golden Age of Telekinesis. This culture, circa 698,291 A.F., achieved the very peak of video game addiction, and yet somehow avoided inventing the single-pole toggle switch” The abstraction of the painting – totally unrelated to gaming in its inception – nevertheless encourages multiple interpretations.
Thanks to Powers, we can approach any number of ideas, somewhat off-center, indirectly, seeing them as confusing, complex, not easily understood, possibly surprising or even beyond our understanding.
Not all the images chosen for the Portfolio were difficult to interpret, or foreign to the eye. In Confrontation in a Mutant fFlar (Plate #7), Powers chose to show off not only his favorite model, but also his facility with representational art. The image can be directly linked to a painting published a year earlier, in 1982, for the cover of Heinlein’s novel Friday (Holt, Rinehart and Winston) as well as being clearly the basis for a later one, The Annual World’s Best SF for 1988 (DAW), where the head of the robot alien is replaced with that of the head of the model used in this painting, keeping the identical pose. The painting is a remarkably successful blend of the abstract, the surreal, and the commercial (the stylized red-head, a classic beauty with wind-blown hair).
The Yeast-Tundra at the East Pole of fFlar: The Mylar Age (Plate #11) displays a similarly commercial look, with strong abstract and surreal elements combining easily with representational figure work. This comes as no surprise, because the painting previously was seen on the trade paperback cover for Robert A. Heinlein’s Number of the Beast (Fawcett 1980).
The figure work and space ship are typically “science fictional”, but it is the surreal elements that give the painting so much visual strength. The book also featured 53 black-and-white illustrations by Powers, and in the marketing circular was billed by Fawcett as having “a dazzling full-color cover by the eminent science fiction artist Richard Powers.” Powers was also featured in a separate blurb, “about the artist” - no small accolade at a time when some artists were still fighting for name credit on the copyright page.
Another painting with tremendous impact is the totally abstract Space Prison of fFlar (Plate #14) probably painted in the late 70s, although a clearly related painting was previously reproduced in an earlier, or variant form as the cover painting for the Keith Laumer novel, Night of Delusions (Berkley 1974), as well as Destination Universe, by A.E. Van Vogt, (Berkley 1975). This major work of art, like many others Powers created, was boldly painted using a hollow wooden door as the substrate (as were several others chosen for publication in the Portfolio).
Powers liked painting large panels at times, and often experimented with unusual surfaces. Doors were frequently his choice when a firm and sturdy platform was needed, and the visual effect of such a large painting is stunning, although the impact is lost when such paintings are reproduced on the covers of books. Powers must have considered this style of painting - most clearly and heavily influenced in its organic shapes by Tanguy - to be one of his more successful paintings, because he carried these “organic” elemental shapes and compositional elements strongly into several other paintings, to similarly spectacular effect.
The City of fFlar: Blue Period, An Age of Robots (Plate #13), is a magnificent painting in which – while a vividly turquoise/blue sky does dominate the background - a city is barely discernible, and the term ‘robots’ can only loosely be applied to the elegantly surreal shapes that compose the painting. This painting, perhaps one of the finest examples of his abstract surreal ‘organic’ style, had previously been seen on the cover of The Future Now, by Robert Hoskins (Fawcett 1977).
It is a wonderful demonstration of Powers’ ability to adapt his talents to the needs of commercial illustration. But it also demonstrates his view of the function of science fiction art, which as he explained in his Algol magazine interview (1977) with Vincent Di Fate, was “to make the SF attractive so that it will be irresistible to a reader who might possibly not cope with it otherwise.
If we can make it visually attractive enough, we may help influence attitudes”. It’s worth noting that Powers, although he changed the face of science fiction art, was one of the earliest of what can be considered a “third wave” of science fiction artists – illustrators who came from outside the pulp or science fiction field who entered the industry without any preconceived notions about style or substance. Powers had no contact with pulp art and was not influenced by it. Nor was he a science fiction fan who moved into the sci-fi art field. Instead, his influences were classical painters as well as Matta, Miro, Tanguy, and other European surrealists.
Powers’ anarchic and at times totally wacky sense of humor was fully realized in fFlar, where his captioning and descriptive text, both parodied - and bowed to – the traditions of those classical European surrealists. He mimicked with exuberance artists like Miro, and Dali, known for their extravagantly literal but obtuse titles, given the visual images (e.g., Miro: A Star Caresses the Breast of a Negress or Dali: My Wife, Nude, Watching her own Body become Steps, Three Vertebrae of a Column, Sky and Architecture), by giving us Ur-fFlar on the Nile, Terra, Circa March 11, 4106 B.C.
Powers describes the image as “constructed by a galactic expedition as a souvenir of its visit to our Alternate Universe…incontrovertible evidence that Von Daniken is right and anybody with an I.Q. larger than his shoe size is wrong” (plate 4). However, the image was actually created as book jacket art for Land of the Pharaohs, one in a series of educational children’s books, 1960. We see Powers’ love of the broadest kind of satirical humor when he contrasts a pretentious title The Death and Disfiguration of fFlar: The End of Time (Plate #16) with a silly caption
“If we are to believe the Artist, the skull in the foreground is his own, painted after a galactic implo-gotterdammerung in which, even as he painted, he was engulfed. It is known, however, that the Artist was missing a tooth from his upper jaw, and the skull we have here is fully toothed . . .”
In other instances, both title AND caption are not to be taken seriously, as in fFlarians at the Hunt: Early Gaseo-Para-vertebrate Age (Plate #10) where a painting of transparent wholly abstract “entities” floating on a beige ground, are described thusly: “Painted as the semi-corporeal master of the Chase prepares to vaporize a proto-syzygy hound, the chief source of formica for the piano keys of fFlar”.
In several of the Plates, however, Powers plays with the relationship of the image to the title, not just to explain the subject matter, but to suggest a greater aesthetic experience, by providing a more “elegant” descriptive caption. A good example would be The Corpus of the Ur-Hero (Plate #15) further explained by text reading: “At 11:59 P.M. on December 31, 999,999 A.F., the colossal cybernated body of fFirth m’fFlar levitates toward the predestined monumental sarcophagus that towers over fFlar.”
Never mind that this painting had already seen ‘life’ as the cover to Simak’s Our Children’s Children (Berkley/Putnam, 1974), or that the motif, the essentially linear design, was repeated to similarly handsome effect in Tunnel Through the Deeps, by Harry Harrison (Berkley 1974), and for that reason might already be familiar to readers as an example of the artist’s more colorful, graphic style. The point is that Powers was so easily able to turn intellectual tables on us, and take what was an effective marketing tool in one context, an illustration for a science fiction narrative, and recycle it into a legitimately surrealist narrative, in another. And that whatever we are seeing, we are prepared to believe IS the city of fFlar, at some far distant point in time, in another universe.
Powers loved to pull conceptual “fast ones”, and fooling around with the notion of time was one of them. He wanted us to believe that fFlar, despite its imaginary status, obeyed physical laws, although the laws were subject to Powers’ manipulation. As Summers pointed out in his prefatory comments (Tomorrow and Beyond, 1978) “as good a touchstone as any for separating the two related genres (of science fiction and fantasy) is a sense of time. Science fiction concerns the future . . . treats time as linear; even when a story or picture does not come with a specific date, we have no trouble believing that a calendar exists somewhere on which the events depicted can be marked off.”
Nine of the sixteen paintings in the Portfolio are exactly and accurately “dated” in their captions, mostly using the notation A.F. (After fFlar), including The Corpus of the Ur-Hero, noted above. The dates he invents gives us not only an idea of his humor, but also provides clues towards his views on job deadlines, and the constraints of commercial assignments, both of which are a fact of life for illustrators. His obvious efforts to be highly specific in his dates, is also revealing; it showed how aware he was of science fiction’s reliance on precision and specificity as a tactic used by writers to persuade their readers to (as is often said) suspend their disbelief. Some examples:
“ . . . painted on the spot during the year 6018 A.D. (21,209,868 A.F.)” (Plate 1) “painted on a day the artist designates as the œøπ 21-Øth of ∆¥, 17,700,426, A.D. (Plate 2)
“This culture, circa 698,291 A.F.” (Plate 5)
“Painted circa November, 13, 62,928 A. F.” (Plate 7)
“Painted in 429, 804 A.F. under the unblinking scrutiny of the Oppressor-Orb” (Plate 8)
“Painted….681,928 A.F.” (Plate 10)
“painted during the 11th Century, A.D. (22,804 A.F. in the quadrinary system of the fFlarians)” (Plate 12)
“painted at a moment approximately 210,687,582 years in our future, their past. Or, in a finer calculation, 6,642,332,080,353,952 microseconds, give or take a microsecond” (Plate 4)
“…painted during the fFlung Dynasty, ….11:59 P.M on December 31, 999,999 A.F.” (Plate 15)
Anytime Powers was at a loss for a label for one of his paintings, even in years following the publishing of the Portfolio, fFlar and Ur were terms available to serve the purpose. Although he surely tired of maintaining the fiction of fFlar by the late 80's – indeed, by the early 90s he had generally replaced it entirely with the early favored, mythic, iconical “Ur” (as in "Ur of the Chaldees) especially in titles for his fine art paintings - the invention served him well. It seemed to satisfy his need to "dislocate" the viewer, by associating his later abstract impressionist, uncategorizable images (such as landscapes done in Ireland] with a label that marked them as weird, exotic, foreign. Too, like many artists, he hated (and had a hard time) giving titles to paintings; he "suffered" labels, as necessary evils.
But where did the idea of fFlar really come from and what was his motive for persisting in it? The Portfolio project, which exposed innocent lovers of Powers’ surreal art to the power of his equally surreal use of language, was – and remains – incompletely understood.
For one thing, it was not easy to retro-fit (and in some cases, force-fit) some of the more straightforwardly representational images, which had only tenuous ties to surrealism, into a “fFlarian” context. All but three of the paintings, and the cover art, were originally commercially commissioned book covers. At the same time, while the images were able to stand on their own as attractive paintings (indeed, had they not been appealing they would not have been effective advertising tools, nor would single Plates from the Portfolio still be selling on eBay), not even his closest friends and family are today able to fully explain the motive, or rationale, for fFlar.
Richard Michael Gorman Powers (February 24, 1921 – March 9, 1996) was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame in 2016. His Spacetimewarp Portfolio, now a collector’s item long out of print, remains a powerful testament to his range of expression and unique artistic sensibility.