Remembering Richard Merkin
By Andrew Martinez
Richard Merkin—for decades the go-to authority for all things dandyish, be it in Boston, Providence, or New York—first came to RISD in 1961 as an MFA student in painting. Once graduated, he remained at RISD, teaching painting full-time from 1963 to 1973 and part-time, commuting two days a week from New York, between 1973 and 2009.
We know of Merkin through a great deal of ephemera, both visual and written, collected in the RISD Archives: catalogues and postcards for gallery shows, course descriptions and syllabi, newspaper profiles about Merkin as an artist/collector/dandy, photographs, posters, and published pieces. This material documents his love for the period between the first and second world wars and its culture—high and low—which became subject matter for his paintings: baseball, boxing, cabarets, jazz and society orchestras, celebrity, cinema, comic strips, crime, and journalism. His interest in this era went beyond nostalgia; these times radiated a congruent respect for standards and traditions—for what had come before—even as boundaries were being tested. Emerging as an artist in the 1960s, Merkin was all about culture, not the counterculture.
A 1967 letter (on vintage letterhead) from Merkin to musician Bobby Short, expressing Merkin’s esteem for Short and his music and inviting him to see Merkin’s first New York gallery show, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.” The letter was accompanied by a catalog for the show with a handwritten tribute from Merkin. Courtesy of the RISD Archives
Merkin appreciated writing as much as, if not more than, painting. He contributed articles to national magazines and occasionally authored fond appreciations of his colleagues for RISD publications. In 1991, Merkin wrote a memorial tribute to Murray S. Danforth, Jr., a longtime treasurer and trustee for RISD and a member of the Metcalf family, several generations of which have steadfastly served as patrons of RISD since it was founded in 1877. According to Merkin, Mr. Danforth was “elegant, without being the least self-conscious about it … also smashingly handsome in the manner of the ’30s matinee idol, and he maintained a distinctive (and undeviating) coiffure that symbolized, it seems to me, a continuity of principle and tradition.” Merkin described Danforth’s non-casual “casual” attire at RISD clambakes and his attendance at RISD faculty meetings, “in those halcyon days when the faculty was dotted with Swiss Dadaists, math teachers who looked like extras from The Godfather, and even the lone surviving kamikaze pilot.” Merkin recalled “one meeting in particular when a stocky Italian sculptor was in a heated argument with an Irish painter about the finer distinctions of our social strata. The painter claimed that we were all ‘solid middle class,’ while the Calabrian insisted that we were ‘in the lower-upper-middle-class.’ Through it all, Danforth, who had no problems whatsoever about his own social position, chuckled continuously when he wasn’t laughing out loud.”
An invitation, written to Merkin in 1976 at his New York residence, for “an exhibition of the letters of Ray Johnson” at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The exhibition included correspondence from Johnson to Merkin. Courtesy of the RISD Archives
My own recollections of Richard Merkin come from his attendance at monthly RISD faculty meetings. As a part-time professor, Merkin was under no obligation to attend the meetings, yet he was ever-present, dressed in shorts, a jersey t-shirt, and a retro-styled Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. In his art and lifestyle, he adhered to order and tradition with a twist of self-conscious eccentricity, and I believe these elements are what kept him connected to RISD. He must have valued the continuity of the alumni-turned-teacher tradition that went back more than 100 years, the cyclical nature of the academic year. Surely he cherished the brand of eccentrics one finds among RISD’s faculty and students.
For Richard Merkin, the things that RISD offered and represented never went out of style. He derived sustenance from his RISD experiences and for that reason, he chose never to leave. As we see in the ephemera from his life and his tailored clothing on view in the exhibition Artist/Rebel/Dandy, his personality and fashion sense live on at RISD.
Rhode Island School of Design Archivist *