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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





Artists in this show

Richard Merkin

Studio, 1974, 1974

Kewpie Barrett In Hollywood, 1998

1914: Rabbit Maranville, 1986

(469) Satchel Paige, c. 1985

Untitled 529 (Gallery 444 Poster, SF Giants), 2004

Cristobal Torriente, unknown

Untitled 012 (Calif. Angel's Cap), unknown

Slim Jones for the Philadelphia Stars, unknown

013 Babe Ruth, unknown

A Fantasy, 1986

(106) Baseball, 1980 - 2000

(142) Moses Yellowhorse, 1980 - 2000

(179) Hank Greenberg (Detroit Tigers), 1980 - 2000

Joe McGinnity, 1987


Spring Training (Chesbro), 1985

(196) Elwood Bingo DeMoss, 1980 - 2000

(447) McKeever Pl., c. 1980 - 2006

A Toledo Mud-Hen, 1984

(246) Babe Ruth, 1980 - 2000


Pine Plains Fireman Who Outpitched Lefty Krauss, 1992

Harry Davis, c. 1987


David Cone, Yankee No. 36, 1996

(451) Old Hoss Charley Radbourn, c. 1980 - 2006

Ebbets Field, c. 1985

Alta Cohen in Jersey City, 2003

Untitled (Self-Portait in Pink), c. 1980

(257) Baseball Player with Umpire, c.1980-2008


Richard Merkin, Unknown

Untitled 044 Peter Lynch, unknown

(112) William Wyler, c.1980 - 2000

(186) Ralph Waldo Ellison, c.1980 - 2000

(250) John Cheever: GOODBYE MY BROTHER, c.1980 - 2000

(251) James Baldwin, c.1980 - 2000

(023) Marquis de Sade, c. 1980 - 2000

(021) Diane di Prima, c. 1980 - 2000

(393) Arthur Rimbaud in his bed in Brussels, c. 1980 - 2000

(408) Oscar Wilde, c. 1980 - 2000


(439) Colette, c. 1980 - 2006

(410) Susan Sontag, c. 1980 - 2000

The Theosophist (Blavatsky), unknown

(091) Nastassja Kinski , c.1980 - 2000

(406) Flannery O'Connor, c. 1980 - 2000

(517) General Art Books Robert K. Brown, c.1980 - 1990

Carson McCullers, 2005


(518) Robert K. Brown Art Books, c.1980 - 1990

(214) Norman Mailer, The Executioner's Song, 1980

DeNiro as Capone, 1988

Studio: Cecil Beaton, 1998

(343) Carol Reed, c.1980-2008

Untitled 337 (Georges Feydeau), c.1980-2008

Marlene Dietrich, c. 2005

(153) Ginger Rogers as Susan Applegate, 1988-92

Dorothy Parker, c.2005


(104) Billy Wilder, c.1980 - 2000


(203) Zora Neale Hurston, c.1980 - 2000

(204) Tom Wolfe, c.1980 - 2000

Robert Morse in Capote, c. 1980

(189) Harold Brodkey, c.1980 - 2000

(394) Arthur Rimbaud (purple), c. 1980 - 2000

Edna St. Vincent Millay in Greenwich Village, 1992-1999

(259) Chester Himes, c.1980 - 2000

(272) Henry Miller, c.1980 - 2000

(417) H L Mencken, 1994


(421) Klaus Kinski and Claudia Cardinale in Fitzcarraldo, c. 1980 - 2006

(445) Jean Cocteau, c. 1980 - 2006

(409) Groucho Marx, c. 1980 - 2000

(226) Orson Welles , c.1980 - 2000

(293) Edmund Wilson, c.1980-2008

(092) José Ferrer as Talouse Latrec, c.1980 - 2000

Fran Liebowitz: The Satirist in Repose, 2003


A Portrait of Joan Didion, 2002

(319) Larry Parks as Al Jolson, c.1980- 2000

(187) David Cronenburg, c.1980 - 2000

(038) Ernst Lubitsch, c.1980 - 2000

(489) The Trouble with Agents, 1998

(533) D W Griffith, c. 1980 - 2006

(539) Richard Brautigan, c. 1980 - 2006

(540) Djuna Barnes, c. 1980 - 2006

(096) Ralph Richardson , c.1980 - 2000

(311) Alfred Knopf, c.1980-2008

Eberhardt in Algeria, 2002


Burroughs n Tangiers #2 (Dog Days in N. Africa), 1971

The Fifties (for Ken), c.1975

Nature Morte: Miss Otis Regrets, 1975

The Wall Game #2, 1977

Osterman, 1972

Untitled (mod tie), c.1973

Lil Green, 1972

The Cubist, 1982-5

Richard Merkin

(504) Cincinnati Underworld, 1972

Richard Merkin, Unknown

(479) Hotele: The Smile of Garbo, 1989

(503) Night Life of the Soul, c.1980

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