Richard Merkin’s vibrant painting career was characterized by a blend of popular culture, everyday life, humor, and personal insights. He attended Syracuse University before pursuing graduate studies in art at Michigan State University and the Rhode Island School of Design, where he proceeded to teach drawing and painting for forty-two years. Numerous materials on his work and teaching career were admitted to the RISD Archives.
Merkin was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1938, and established his art career there after returning to the city in 1967. He enjoyed regular showings at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, and exhibited at the Obelisk Gallery, Boston, the DeCordova Museum, and as part of the Boston Arts Festival and Rhode Island Arts Festival. He was deeply inspired by the lively paintings of R. B. Kitaj, and frequently worked in a collage or assemblage style. Merkin specialized in capturing popular scenes from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, and created portraits of cultural luminaries such as Joan Didion and Fran Lebowitz.
As a well-known dandy, Merkin worked with Manhattan tailor Vincent Nicolosi and associated with Manhattanites Alan Flusser, Thomas Wolfe, Eddie Hayes and Bobby Short. He authored the column “Merkin on Style” for Gentlemen’s Quarterly from 1988 to 1991, became a Contributing Editor for Vanity Fair in 1986. He regularly contributed illustrations to The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and The New York Times, and illustrated a book on African-American baseball leagues. He also maintained a claim to fame as part of the cover image from the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club album, where he was pictured near Mae West, Carl Jung, and Bob Dylan.
Merkin eventually moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York, where he died at the age of seventy. During his lifetime he was honored with the 1962-1963 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship in Painting, and received the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1975. He was also the recipient of prizes from the Providence Art Club Painting Annual in 1965, and the Silvermine Guild in 1963.
Written by Zenobia Grant Wingate