Richard Merkin passed away over a decade ago at the age of 70. Richard Merkin was my painting teacher during my junior year at Rhode Island School of Design in 1980-81. Eighteen years my senior, I first crossed paths with Richard when he was 42, and I was 24. Larger than life, Merkin was an important influence on my early thinking about painting and development as an artist.
When I arrived at our first class in September that year, I had heard only of Merkin’s reputation as an anachronistic, larger-than-life bon vivant known as much for his wardrobe of custom suits, bowler hats, spats and walking stick as for his collection of vintage pornography, Cuban cigars, and buxom blondes. I didn’t anticipate the other Richard Merkin, the teacher whom I would grow to admire and respect more than any other in my life.
Over that school year, Richard revealed to us, a group of 12 junior-year painting majors, his sharp wit, insatiable curiosity, and idiosyncratic cultural captivations. I wouldn’t have predicted his genuine sincerity and ability to guide and encourage aspiring young artists to ponder and articulate thoughts on pictures and visual ideas, whether of their work or that of other makers. His painting critiques were frequently funny, often insightful and thoroughly thought-provoking. From him, I finally began to understand how to look at and respond to any picture as an observer of its inherent meaning, whether intended or unintended by its author.
In February, Richard invited all members of our small class to attend an opening of his new work at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery in New York. I was excited at the prospect of attending an opening in New York City and even bought a fine new blazer just for the event. (Every other article of clothing I owned at that time was splattered in paint.) I joined up with three RISD classmates on the trip to the Big Apple, Lori, Liz, and Bunky, all of whom knew New York City much better than me.
Hot, crowded and chaotic, I witnessed first-hand Richard in his natural environment: a 57th Street gallery opening. Glad-handing friends, collectors, and admirers, he filled the room with his roaring laugh while punctuating the air with an unlit Cuban. Fans pulled Richard in many directions, among them, Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities, a huge bestseller at the time. But Merkin was the center of attention and the life of the party.
I managed to get a brief moment to congratulate Richard on his work and the opening of the exhibition and invited him to join us for cocktails later even though I knew he would decline. “I’m just following my nose right now … ,” he said. (And, thinking to myself, quite a proboscis it was! He’s certainly won’t lose his way behind that formidable appendage.)
Sightings of Wolfe and Merkin’s at Elaine’s, along with their sartorial choices, showed up often in the New York magazines. So it was a treat to actually witness them together wearing tall-collared starched shirts, gold cufflinks, silk pocket squares, and custom-made suits. That night, Merkin dressed to the nines like one of his painted characters. A news camera crew followed Wolfe around the gallery.
Though a Manhattanite to his core, Merkin also was a semi-celebrity in Rhode Island where he spent part of each week during the school year. He was a RISD professor for 42 years. Richard patronized many all of the stylish Providence eateries of the 80’s: The Blue Point or Joe’s Upstairs, or Leo’s where he nursed many Bass Ales with Louis Meuller, Dewey Dufresne, or Dale Chihuly, in the shadows of the highway overpasses. I remember him sitting beneath the mural-sized Dan Gosch painting of dozens of other colorful local personalities from my youth: Buddy Cianci, Salty Brine, Sherm Strickhouser, Charles Rocket, and Don Pardo to name just a few.
For a complete catalog of Merkin’s work, visit the estate collection at the Carrie Haddad Gallery.
Do you have memories of Richard Merkin? If so, please share them with us in the comments section below. — Mark
Resources and other media:
WAVY News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcBu8nuYpDw
Charlie Rose: Bob Adelman Richard Merkin