On one of my countless moochings around the West End of London that I undertook on a regular basis during the 1980s, I found the store RD Franks, which was situated, if memory serves, at the Market Place end of Great Titchfield Street. It specialised in stocking fashion magazines from all over the globe. Among the countless works on offer, I found GQ, or Gentleman’s Quarterly to give it its full title. This was the original monthly American version and I was delighted to discover it was full of photographs of great ‘Ivy League’ clothing, which was my style of choice, having just recently discovered J. Simons in Covent Garden. I purchased a copy and that practice continued for many years, indeed I only recently cancelled my subscription to the US version, finding it finally having lost its way.
Upon flicking through subsequent copies over the years, I always looked forward to seeing the illustrations by the artist and dandy Richard Merkin as well as his ‘Merkin on Style’ features which ran from the late 80’s to the early 90’s. In truth, I knew nothing of Merkin himself, but then one month, GQ ran a feature on him and his own personal style. Man, what a dresser he was. He subtly mixed Savile Row tailoring with exquisite vintage finds and the result was fantastic to observe. His preferred era seemed to me to be a late 20’s / 30’s ‘jazz age’ with a Gatsby (He appeared briefly in the 1974 Great Gatsby film) kind of look, with his hair slicked back, sporting fair size lapels on his jackets, and having a choice of dapper hats. The article also highlighted his collection of accessories from walking canes, to monogrammed cufflinks. All of which made a big impression on me for years to come.
So, what of the man.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1938 and attended local public schools. He was clothes obsessed from his earliest years, with his ‘pin ups’ being the likes of actor Aldople Menjou, who Merkin came to bear a strong resemblance to, in years to come. His early styling was Zoot suit in flavour, then moving on to a Preppy look, before settling upon his 1930s retro/ vintage vibe.
He entered the art school world at the earliest opportunity. He graduated with a bachelor’s fine art degree in 1960 from Syracuse, before studying for his Masters, first at Michigan and then at the Rhode Island School of Design by 1963. He must have liked it there, because he stayed and taught as a professor there at RISD for the next 42 years, commuting in from his apartment in New York . Among his students, were Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz of Talking Heads fame.
His own artwork, certainly had a distinct flavour of Pop Art about it, and a meeting with our master of that art form, Sir Peter Blake, saw them strike up a friendship . Blake created a 1966 artwork called ‘Souvenirs for Richard Merkin’ for his new friend, and subsequently, Merkin ended up on the cover of the famous Sgt. Peppers album. You can find him up the back, with a black hat on his head next to Fred Astaire and Lenny Bruce.
Much of Merkin’s own work featured and highlighted what fascinated him in his daily life, from the Cotton Club, jazz, baseball, and Hollywood film stars to Disney Characters all of whom populated his colourful work, which then appeared regularly in untold magazines, with the New Yorker, Harpers and Vanity Fair among them.
‘What made Merkin so sought after as an illustrator was his eccentric approach to modernist art’ his friend Tom Wolfe once wrote. ‘He used Modernism’s all-over flat designs – that is, every square inch of the canvas was covered by flat, unmodulated blocks of colour 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.’
As mentioned, Merkin was also well known for his sense of style, with his tailor of choice being Vincent Nicolosi, and fellow dressers in his sartorial gang, included pianist Bobby Short and of course, Wolfe himself..
‘My sartorial aspirations lie somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington,’ he once memorably said.
He was a familiar site parading around the streets of Manhattan in bespoke suits, flower in the lapel and his hat at a jaunty angle
Tom Wolfe again – ‘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 moustaches in the art world.’
Merkin was also a collector of Objet ‘D’art of some note, with a diverse selection in his collection, from Cuban and black league baseball cards to vintage pornography, which ended up in one of his books entitled ‘Tijuana Bibles,’ featuring extracts from explicit comics from the 1930 onwards, bought over the border in Mexico.
Other works of his include…
1979 – Velvet Eden – a Collection of Erotic Photography, by Richard Merkin and Bruce McLean.
1995 – Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball Leagues, by Larry Ritter and illustrated by Richard Merkin.
And the aforementioned…
1997 – Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s, written by Bob Adelman, Richard Merkin and Art Spiegelman.
Added to this, his own art hangs in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. Much of his later work, were portraits of sportsmen of the past and the likes of writer and social commentator Fran Lebowitz.
Richard Marshall Merkin, died on September 5th, 2009 after a long illness, at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. He was 70, and his wife Heather was by his side.
The men’s wear designer Alan Flusser, said at the time ‘he was one of the few men who knew how to wear clothes, in a bespoke Bohemian manner. You have to be way beyond fashion to do that.’
Last word to Merkin – ‘I deplore fashion. What I like is style. Dressing, like painting, should have a residual stability, plus punctuation and surprise … Somewhere, like in Crazy Kat, you’ve got to throw the brick.’
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 1
THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Gary Crowley
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