Richard Merkin: On Literature, Film, Baseball and the 70's

a survey of works

March 8, 2012 through April 15, 2012

It is easy – and part of the stylish fun --to find numerous influences in a Richard Merkin drawing or painting, a fact befitting a man who proudly sported an old-world cosmopolitanism both in person and in his art and whose work was a steady feature of the Vanity Fair/New Yorker magazine world of the 80s and 90s. Each Merkin endeavor is a veritable cabaret of illustration, at turns louche, comedic, expressionist and cubist, in styles reminiscent most frequently of Grosz, Picasso, Leger, and Chagall. The cast of characters rendered in the current exhibition at Carrie Haddad Gallery “Richard Merkin on Literature and Film”—movie stars, directors, producers, writers, and other leading or fleeting lights of the last 150 years or so --are a café society made up of the 19th and 20th century’s most famous and infamous, both living and dead, each imbued with a modernist irony that originally conveys the amour fou, perversity and just plain silliness of modern- day celebrity. (One should be reminded that the “modern day” started not just in Hollywood but more specifically around the time of the drug- and- sex addled poet Rimbaud, his Arthur Rimbaud in His Bed in Brussels is one of the artist's most evocative renditions.) The look on the faces of his subjects may be Buster Keaton deadpan but, like Keaton’s work itself, the spirit behind it is almost cosmically, surrealistically antic. In nearly all of the pictures you can see the artist’s renowned mustache being twirled in a devilishly playful way. Take his portrait of a stone-faced D.W. Griffith, America’s great film pioneer, so obsessed with his (toward the end atavistic) artistic vision that he is almost completely unaware of the pink slip being delivered to him by a cruelly youthful studio hand. In one of his best looking works, Studio: Cecil Beaton (1998), he completely abandons his own style to collage artifacts of the photographer/designer's life and work-- a commentary perhaps on the subject’s chicly handsome yet, in the end, rather superficial legacy. In Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song (1980) Merkin satirizes the pugilistic writer by placing him in Saul Steinberg’s famous landscape of the world from the viewpoint of a native New Yorker. "With his Krazy Kat-stamped hand-rolled cigarettes, custom Vincent Nicolosu suits, bowler hat, and signature mustache, Richard was a connoissuer of the good life in New York City," says New Yorker art editor Chris Curry, who worked with Merkin throughout his twenty year career at the magazine. Merkin’s friend Tom Wolfe, describing his entire oeuvre, writes that "the typical Merkin picture takes legendary American images-from baseball, the movies, fashion, society, tabloid crime and scandal-and mixes them with his own autobiography, often with dream-style juxtapositions." Merging his life as a flaneur with his role as painter and social historian, Merkin introduced retrospective cultural artifacts - a Turkish cigarette, a gangster, a bowler hat - and reconstitutes their Jazz Age virtues on canvas in cubist, comic-laced landscapes of tropical color.” “This desire to know and celebrate people and events that others find devoid of significance”, according to Barbara Dayer Gallati, “is a primary characteristic of Merkin’s art and the source of the irony that prevails within it. More often than not these esoteric fragments of “public” information reveal a taste for the bizarre or darker side of human existence, the sinister nature of which is relieved by the artist’s use of vibrant color and dynamic compositions.” Richard Merkin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, and held degrees from Syracuse University and the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1962-63 he received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship in Painting and, in 1975, The Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from The National Institute of Arts and Letters. Merkin began teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 1963 and remained there for nearly 42 years. During this time, he built his reputation as a fine artist in New York City. He is represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution and the Whitney Museum as well as many others. Mr. Merkin had been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair from 1986 to 2008 and a regular contributor of illustrations to The New Yorker since 1988, as well as Harper’s and The New York Time’s Sunday Magazine. From 1988-1991 he wrote a monthly style column for Gentlemen’s Quarterly. In 1995, he illustrated the book, Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues, (by Larry Ritter). Merkin’s exhibitions in Hudson, New York began in 2000 at Kendall Art & Design, a gallery run by one of his former RISD students. In 2002, he began exhibiting with Carrie Haddad Gallery, which continues to represent the Richard Merkin Estate. Merkin also appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, (back row, right of center). The artist died in 2009.

by Scott Baldinger

Richard Merkin