Richard Merkin 1938-2009
In the austere climate of the 70s artworld, New York artist Richard Merkin’s paintings were a beacon of light for those of us who craved a bit of subversive content, humor and esoterica. If minimalism was the prevailing mode, Merkin was a maximalist, and in his shows was to be found an abundance of visual information celebrating some of the more obscure corners of our culture, particularly from the 20s and 30s. His paintings were jazz-age rhapsodies of literary lore, early comic strip characters, romantic gangster, old Hollywood, Tin Pan Alley lyrics, floozies, and the recurring image of Merkin himself, a Brilliantined dandy with an Adloph Menjou mustache, carnation in the buttonhole of his sharp suit, part Parisian flâneur, part Broadway bally-hoo.
He showed for years with the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, and also taught painting and drawing at the Rhode Island School of Design, nurturing legions of young devotees with his expansive eccentricities for over four decades.
Our mutual friend David McDermott first took me to meet him in the spring of 1975, in Merkin’s huge pre-war apartment on West End Avenue and 84th Street, a kind of private museum of prewar Continental erotica, Negro League baseball photos, Charlie Chaplin posters, Kitaj prints, Walker Evans photographs. Josephine Baker crooned from his turntable. There was Merkin himself, larger (and louder) than life, eyes twinkling, guffawing at his own off-color jokes. He offered us coffee and his personalized Egyptian blend cigarettes (inscribed “KRAZY KAT”) from Charles Demuth’s cigarette case. He was 38 then, a high-profile New Yorker, seen in Esquire in JeanPaul Grounde photospreads, seen [read?] in the Times for his arcane knowledge of dandyism, seen in the party scene of the film, The Great Gatsby, seen repeatedly in various Whitney Biennials. We embarked on a friendship, me a Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote.
In the 1980s he gave up his bachelor life and married a Liverpudlian named Heather. His color become more tropical, his line became blacker and bolder, and be began drawing for the New Yorker and writing for GQ and Vanity Fair.
A series of calamaties befell him in the 21st Century and he gradually retreated from the society that he has so illuminated. I once asked him if a show he had up was going to get reviewed. “Naw…the critics don’t bother with me anymore, to them I’m just something the cats had fun with in the alley last night.”
Merkin was a great inspiration to me as well as countless others, a fascinating painter, an eclectic aesthete, and a rollicking character. He will be greatly missed.print