Richard Merkin

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Richard Merkin (1938 – September 5, 2009) was an American painter and illustrator. Merkin's fascination with the 1920s and 1930s defined his art and shaped his identity as a professional dandy. Merkin traveled back in time as an artist, to the time of the interwar years, creating narrative scenes in bright colors of jazz musicians, film stars, writers, and sports heroes. Merkin was as well known for his painting and illustration work as he was for his eccentric collecting habits and his outré fashion sense.[1]

Merkin was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1938, and held an undergraduate degree in fine art from Syracuse University in 1960, a Master's Degree in art from Michigan State University in 1961, and a Master's Degree in Painting (MFA) from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1963.[1] 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 42 years, during which time he built his reputation in New York. He commuted every week to RISD to teach painting and drawing, after he moved back to New York in 1967.[1] At RISD, Merkin was loved and revered. One RISD alum described him as “fearless beyond measure.” [2]

Richard Merkin embodied RISD. He was regularly seen on campus wearing his trademark scarf and ballet slippers. When the film "Great Gatsby" was being filmed in Newport, RI in 1974 Merkin appeared as an extra in one of the lawn party scenes..[3]

He is represented in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art, The Smithsonian Institution and the Whitney Museum, among others. Merkin had been a contributing editor for Vanity Fair since 1986 and a regular contributor of illustrations to The New Yorker since 1988, as well as Harper's and The New York Times' Sunday Magazine. From 1988–1991, he wrote a monthly style column called "Merkin on Style" for Gentlemen's Quarterly. In 1986, Merkin told The Daily News Record, a fashion publication: "Dressing, like painting, should have a residual stability, plus punctuation and surprise...Somewhere, like in Krazy Kat, you've got to throw the brick." [1]

In 1995, he illustrated the book Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Larry Ritter. He wrote the text and captions for The Tijuana Bibles (Simon & Schuster, 1997). He appeared on the cover of The BeatlesSgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, (back row, right of center, in between Fred Astaire and a Vargas Girl).[1]

Merkin was also an avid collector of vintage pornography, and part of his collection was published in "Velvet Eden - The Richard Merkin Collection of Erotic Photography" (Methuen, 1979).

Merkin's dear friend, the writer Tom Wolfe wrote in an email to the New York Times upon Merkin's death: "He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler and Dali...Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining Great Mustaches in the art world." Wolfe also wrote: "What made Merkin so sought after as an illustrator was his eccentric approach to modernist art. He used Modernism's all-over flat designs--that is, every square inch of the canvas was covered by flat, unmodulated blocs of color of equal value, creating not three but two dimensions--but his works were full of people, rendered in the same fashion, in comic poses and situations and extravagantly caricatured." [1]

The New Yorker noted that Merkin “loved and evoked the great spirit of the nineteen-twenties, thirties, and forties in his work” – he was, moreover, “a connoisseur of the good life.” Merkin's career at The New Yorker spanned twenty years, three covers, and nearly three hundred illustrations.[4]

Merkin died on September 5, 2009, after a long illness. He was 70 years old.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Grimes, William (September 13, 2009). "Richard Merkin, Painter, Illustrator and Fashion Plate, Dies at 70". The New York Times. 
  2. ^ Richard Merkin, 1938-2009 : The New Yorker
  3. ^ Our (and Your) RISD » Blog Archive » Richard Merkin, 1938-2009
  4. ^ Boldfaced : The New Yorker
  5. ^ Grimes, William (September 13, 2009). "Richard Merkin, 70, Painter, Illustrator and Fashion Plate". New York Times. Retrieved September 16, 2009. 

Further reading[edit]

  • On Art and Perfume or Did Mondrian Use Masking Tape?. M.I.T. Office of Publications, 1969. Exhibition catalog, Hayden Gallery, M.I.T., November 7 to December 2, 1969.

External links[edit]