By: Steven Heller
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.