The Dandiest Dandy

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Richard Merkin, mustachioed artist, illustrator, critic, collector, connoisseur, and
the dandiest of dandies (portrait above and “self-portrait with NY cap”
1990, below), died on September 5 at his home in Croton-on-Hudson. He
was 70 years old.

I met Merkin decades ago, and our shared passion for things old and
eccentric–and a common interest at the time in rare erotica and
baseball–forged a bond. I also commissioned him for the occasional
illustration in The New York Times Book Review.
I recall a portrait he did of Mussolini as particularly strong in capturing
relevant features while offering a hint of wry
caricature. Merkin was also a caricature, of a bygone age, but
nonetheless alive in the present.

His drawings and paintings, inspired by R. B. Kitaj,
are colorful, vibrant, eerily surreal, and decidedly modern. He was
on the crest of the last wave in a waning sea of glorious eccentrics.
He never came off as pretentious or disingenuous, despite, as his
friend Tom Wolfe describes “his self-scripted role as a dandy and
boulevardier, the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since
Sargent, Whistler, and Dali.”

Merkin’s work appeared frequently in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Gentleman’s Quarterly (a column on sartorial splendor), and The New York Times Book Review, among others. He had his fair share of solo exhibitions too.

 
Wolfe explains: “What made Merkin so sought after as an illustrator was
his eccentric approach to Modernist art.  He used Modernism’s all-over
flat designs–i.e., every square inch of the canvas was covered by
flat, unmodulated blocs of color of equal value, creating not three but
two dimensions–and yet were full of people, rendered in the same
fashion, in comic poses and situations and extravagantly caricatured. 
Using human figures in contemporary clothes in situations that suggest
contemporary stories of the human comedy–that was a sin that pure
Modernism could not abide.”
 
Wolfe adds that the “same passion for memorabilia from those two decades was at the root of his style of dress.  He had everything in his wardrobe custom-made, bowler hats, homburgs, shirts, neckties, braces, shoes by Lobb of Saville Row, suits and coats by the famous Vincent Nicolosi tailors.” He was well suited for another time, but also for this one.

The last time I saw Merkin, he was leisurely strolling through the 26th
Street Flea Market on a brisk spring morning in khaki shorts, brown leather shoes, and one of
those heavy leather and felt varsity jackets, his hair perfectly parted
and his brush-like mustache meticulously combed. He had a small bag in his
hand, a treasure found under a stack of junk. He bemoaned the paucity
of such treasures in the eBay age, but he wasn’t being maudlin, just
reflective in his dandified way.
 

 

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Daily Heller, Imprint: Print Magazine's Design Blog

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.

3 thoughts on “The Dandiest Dandy

  1. Wacky Wacko

    Steve,

    Thank you for this beautiful remembrance. I didn’t know him well, but Maggie and I spent some time with Richard at a couple of art openings–one of them right here in the Hudson Valley–and he was always a delight. many years ago, he offered to trade original art with me, but it never happened. I regret not pursuing that offer. He was truly one of a kind and it’s sad when these unique people pass along. He was one of a kind.

    -Elwood

  2. Wacky Wacko

    Steve,

    Thank you for this beautiful remembrance. I didn’t know him well, but Maggie and I spent some time with Richard at a couple of art openings–one of them right here in the Hudson Valley–and he was always a delight. many years ago, he offered to trade original art with me, but it never happened. I regret not pursuing that offer. He was truly one of a kind and it’s sad when these unique people pass along. He was one of a kind.

    -Elwood

  3. Wacky Wacko

    Steve,

    Thank you for this beautiful remembrance. I didn’t know him well, but Maggie and I spent some time with Richard at a couple of art openings–one of them right here in the Hudson Valley–and he was always a delight. many years ago, he offered to trade original art with me, but it never happened. I regret not pursuing that offer. He was truly one of a kind and it’s sad when these unique people pass along. He was one of a kind.

    -Elwood

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