Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Looking at Richard Powers with David Brin - 3

John Powers. Spiral Jedi (2008); Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1972) 
(Return to Part 2)
As David, Cheryl and I were leaving the Richard Serra show and headed over to see Nick Cave, we were talking about Isaac Asimov and how, like him, David had used the device of using a murder mystery as the back drop for his first novel. David had just solved a small artworld mystery for me about an odd connection I have to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty via one of his favorite scifi authors, J.G. Ballard.

I like to joke that Serra is the greatest painter of his generation; this show takes none of the truth from that joke. At one point, as David, Cheryl and I were looking a one of the great expanses of rusted steel and David said: "This reminds me of your father's painting." I looked to see Cheryl's reaction only to realize David was talking to me. "The painter Richard Powers is you father isn't he?" he asked. My dad's name is Bob and he is a priest and made his living as a psychologist, which is what I told David.
Mark Rothko, Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, (1944); Richard Powers, The Voices of Time over art (1962)

We did some Googling on my phone and found images of Richard Powers' work - he was a painter famous for his surreal paintings used for the covers of scifi books in the 1950s and 1960s, most famously J.G.Ballard's books. Powers' painting reminded me of the early paintings of Rothko - the surrealism that had hatched Abstract Expressionism - a far less strident, more tentative Modernism than Europe developed before the war, or America championed afterwards.

As it turns out, Powers illustrated two different editions of Ballard's short story collection, Voices in Time. The story, Voices in Time, is believed to have inspired Serra's friend and fellow post-minimalist, Robert Smithson's most famous work: Spiral Jetty.
Richard Powers, The Voices of Time over art (1966); Robert Smithson, Conch Shell Spaceship and Word Land Mass (c. 1961-63)

Also in a strange snake-eating-its-tail sort of symmetry, I first began drawing the link between Minimalism and Star Wars after reading a passage Smithson wrote:
As the aircraft ascends into higher and higher altitudes and flies at faster speeds, its meaning as an object changes - one can even say reverses. The streamlined design of our earlier aircraft becomes increasingly more truncated and angular... It is most probable that we will someday see upon these runways aircraft that will be more crystalline in shape... Already certain passenger aircraft resemble pyramidal slabs, and flying obelisks... The enormous scale of runways will isolate such aircraft into ‘buildings’ for short spaces of time, and then these ‘buildings’ will disappear. The principal runways will extend from 11,000 feet to 14,000 feet, or about the length of Central Park. Consider an aircraft in the shape of an enormous ‘slab’ hovering over such an expanse.” 
Smithson was describing something he was then-calling "aerial art" but would later be called Earth Art. In that 1967 essay, Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site, Smithson was proposing a way of looking at the landscape in terms of speed and elevation related to a spiral of huge triangular cement slabs he had proposed should be installed on the grounds of the then-unbuilt Dallas/Ft Worth airport. Smithson's spiral echoed the cement mandala in Ballard's story. It is a clear predecessor to his Spiral Jetty and echoed more recently in Serra's late-career spiraling ellipses. But what I saw in my mind's eye was a prescient description of Star Destroyers and X-Wings. A curious coincidence that I have always enjoyed: Ballard's protagonist in Voices in Time is a scientist named Powers. I'm guessing he was named after the painter Richard Powers - the artist who illustrated the cover of 15 of Ballard's books.
Robert Smithson, Aerial Map: Proposal for Dallas – Fort Worth Regional Airport, (1967); Star Destroyer (1977)

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