|Anne Lyman Powers was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. An early interest in the arts led her to study at various institutions, including the Winsor School, Vassar College, Columbia University, and the progressive School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.|
While Powers enjoys painting realistic subject matter, including the natural New England landscape and the athlete in motion, her sense of composition, color relationships, and texture lean toward the abstract. For Powers, the pleasure and interest she takes in painting is derived from the tension that exists between realism and abstraction - “realist abstraction or abstract realism”. By striving to marry these two aspects, Powers seeks to “make possible and enhance a feeling, an experience or a statement about the world…or about the human condition”.
This philosophy was especially apparent when, as a young artist, Powers embarked on a series of politically charged expressionist works that would be her signature for decades. Touring Europe on a family summer vacation in 1937, 15-year-old Anne Lyman (Powers) got a firsthand glimpse of pre-war Nazi Germany, which she later called a horrible "dress rehearsal" for what was to come. That same year, Munich featured two infamous art shows: one that Adolf Hitler approved, the other branded "Degenerate." The Boston teenager viewed both with alarm. "The question of why dictators feared modern art became important to me," says Powers. "I needed to understand why Hitler would hate the painting of a black square on a white background by Malevich or a colorful expressionist landscape by Nolde. The political drama haunted me then and still does."
That experience, along with frequent exposure to the Paris avant-garde, strongly influenced Powers' artwork from the 1940s through the '60s, which blended elements from “a bit of surrealism, a bit of pop, and a bit of abstract expressionism”. Alternately witty and moving, her subject matter conveys biting social and political commentary in vividly colorful scenes that dominate every inch of the canvas. They were hardly the pretty still lifes one might expect from a well-bred recent Vassar graduate.
Powers' extensive travels and fine art education served as ideal preparation for her future as a fearless painter. She mastered sculpting in college, later evident in the three-dimensionality of her figures; observed Salvador Dali's surrealism at the 1939 World's Fair; and studied Matisse's bold use of saturated colors while in France. Above all, Powers was in the right place at the right time when she entered Boston's Museum School in 1945, coinciding with teachers including Ben Shahn, Arthur Polonsky, and painting department head Karl Zerbe.
A German expatriate, Zerbe saw his early paintings destroyed by the Third Reich after being consigned to the "Degenerate" art show that so horrified Powers on her first trip to Munich. Along with Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine, the German expatriate and fellow participant in the “Degenerate” art show, Zerbe became known as a Boston Expressionist, rejecting Pollock-type abstraction in favor of story-telling figurative subjects, a style embraced by Powers. She recalls that, "While Zerbe leaned over backwards not to talk about his own history as a political refugee, there was a strong Jewish presence at school," such as classmate David Aronson. "People reacted very emotionally to the times, which I think led them away from abstract compositions. There's no humanism in them."
That certainly cannot be said of Powers' paintings of the period. In "Punch & Judy," the cruel puppets known for anti-Semitic and racist skits engage a rapt audience of impressionable children. The absurdist bacchanal in "Dancing Bear," complete with harmonica-playing grizzly on roller skates, reflects a dissolute society sadly aware of the looming war. Powers liked to portray the working classes with a delicate poignancy or amused affection, but she also poked fun at human foibles. The larger-than-life "Fortune Teller" looks as ridiculous as her predictions of true love and vast wealth for every paying customer, while a fiddle-playing "Nero" lovingly caresses his wine goblet dressed in the colors of Rome's burning flames behind him.
Under Zerbe's tutelage, Powers mastered the difficult medium of encaustic along with oils to convey her strong ideology. "I was always pushing myself to create bolder colors," she says. "I think my obsession came from a lack of color around our house growing up. My father was color-blind and we were constantly surrounded by neutrals."
Neutral is the last word anyone would use to describe Powers' wickedly intelligent mid-century works.