‘Motherwell paints like a guy who knows what to tip the headwaiter.’
‘It is the process of painting which is repellent; to force from little tubes of lead a glutinous flamboyance and to defile with the hair of a camel therein steeped, taut canvas is hardly the diversion of a gentleman.’
‘By the way, those one-color boys have sure got me down. They contemplate their optical illusions as if they were Pure Being but all I can see is a…corporate symbol. Occasionally I talk shop with them but more often than not I demand an explanation.’
Notes towards an Explanation
Basically, the pictures that I have done in the recent past can be divided into two main groups: those dominated by a single motivating factor, often of a more of less “documentary” nature and those that are compendia of varied associations from diffuse sources. A third category might seem to be suggested by the more eccentric pictures and perhaps a number of the assemblages and objects but more often than not I find that these have much in common with the latter form. The pictures then are executed in cycles and although they cannot in any sense be termed polarities, they do constitute a kind of balance in my program.
With rare exception I work on a single picture until it is complete. In the past few years I have found the pictures taking longer to do than they did four or five years ago. I am also aware of the fact that the more recent work has a sense of formality that is insinuated rather acutely. I find this somewhat curious because if anything my attitude towards the proprieties inherent in the act of painting (as see them) has become more flexible. The seeming paradox however gives rise to the positive results: the expansion of the total pictorial potential tempered by an execution that has become firmer and more exacting creates incidents that did not appear in the older pictures.
I believe in an art that is pertinent and one that is in a sense “employed” to use the phrase of a colleague. I naturally believe in a full art, a rich art and one that touches on as many levels as possible. There is no doubt that “art is a private matter”, as Tzara has said, but in so far as I am concerned this does not present an unsurmountable obstacle to the production of a picture that strives to be relevant. I have no interest in the multitudes of meager triumphs that abound. Like Rex Reed or those ghastly Norwegian wooden shoes that so many otherwise attractive young ladies insist upon dragging around, they are simply segments of my environment.
I have never made pictures that are to be solved like riddles nor deciphered like puzzles. I do not make pictures that are about anything except themselves. My selection of elements would, if traced, tell something about me but in the end, the effectiveness of any picture is dependent upon its organization and the associations that it can give rise to – what the picture is and what it stands for. I have no interest in nostalgia nor in a readily translatable language of symbols. I believe in the utilization of anything proper to make poetry. I use, both directly and obliquely, books, magazines, photographs, newspapers and printed ephemera of every nature. I find myself involved with the concept of history, research and journalism as material for the making of pictures. I select and work from and arrange to make a new totality that is itself. R. B. Kitaj’s remark about using books as a landscape painter would use trees is lyrical and it is accurate.
I cannot see anything wrong with knowing what to tip the headwaiter. I believe implicitly in proprieties and in the knowledge of those things one should not do, and I look upon restraint as as valuable an instrument as impulse and spontaneity. While the statement by Max Beerbohm on painting as an unsuitable activity for gentlemen may be somewhat extreme, it does serve to lay a good foundation for reticence as equipment. More to the point though is Sir Max’s comment upon the attire of Beau Brommell, “free from folly or affectation, yet susceptible to exquisite ordering, plastic, austere, economical” – and, as James Laver correctly adds, beautiful. It is somewhat remarkable to compare this description of the epitome of 19th century male costume with a synopsis of art by the Columbus, Ohio strongboy who painted a Stag at Sharkey’s – “Art strives for form and hopes for beauty.”
In conclusion, I have used whatever I felt proper and necessary to make the best and the most beautiful pictures that I possibly could and that, as the actress said to the bishop, would seem to be all for the moment.
Note:Richard Merkin passed away October 2009.We truly miss him.
Richard Merkin’s work conjures up scenes that evoke the raucous spirit of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. In his witty, often eccentric illustrations and paintings, Merkin depicts movie stars, jazz musicians, sports heroes and literary impresarios co-mingling with more personal references. In his highly stylized approach to the figure, Merkin privileges color relationships, balance and juxtaposition over strictly literal descriptions of his subjects.
Merging his role as flaneur (connoisseur of city life) with his role as painter and social historian, Merkin retrieves lost cultural artifacts-a Turkish cigarette, a gangster, a bowler and generally 'things most people don't know about'-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.”
In agreement, Tom Wolfe writes, "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."
Richard Merkin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, and held degrees from SyracuseUniversity 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 also has the dubious distinction of appearing on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, (back row, right of center).
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 WhitneyMuseum 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). He also wrote the text and captions for The Tijuana Bibles, (Simon & Schuster, 1997).
Merkin’s exhibitions in Hudson, NY began in 2000 at Kendall Art & Design, a gallery run by one of his former RISD students, Laura Battle.In 2002, he began exhibiting with Carrie Haddad Gallery until he died in 2009. Carrie Haddad Gallery currently represents the Richard Merkin estate.
“I love you madly” is how Richard Merkin always signed off on the phone. Richard, whose paintings graced our pages for twenty years, died on Saturday. He was a life force, and he brought a smile to all who knew him. I was Richard’s editor, and when he phoned the office, the whole department knew it: you could actually hear his big, wonderful voice across the room.
Bobby Short whispered his name loudly when he entered the Carlyle; Richard bellowed back, “Hello, Bobby,” and charged over to deliver a hearty handshake. His passion for New York City was infectious. His love of jokes was a pleasure to all who knew him, even after the fourth telling. It was all in the delivery.
Richard loved and evoked the great spirit of the nineteen-twenties, thirties, and forties in his work. He created brilliant portraits on handmade paper, with handmade pastels, of everyone from Carmen McRae to Walter Winchell, along with several covers. (Here is a slide show of his work.) An avid reader of the magazine and a fan of Liebling, Arno, Thurber, and Angell, he drew inspiration from our pages and the magazine’s history. A lover of baseball, he illustrated “Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues.”
With his Krazy Kat-stamped hand-rolled cigarettes, custom Vincent Nicolosi suits, bowler hat, and signature mustache, Richard was a connoisseur of the good life in New York City. He was charming, and cared deeply for his many great friends, among them Tom Wolfe, Duncan Hannah, and a multitude of former students and fans from Rhode Island School of Design—not to mention the readers of this magazine.
We will miss him terribly, and continue to love him madly.