THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Richard Merkin; RISD artist also dressed with expression

Richard Merkin wrote the column “Merkin on Style’’ for GQ from 1988 to 1991. His image is on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’’ next to Fred Astaire. Richard Merkin wrote the column “Merkin on Style’’ for GQ from 1988 to 1991. His image is on the cover of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’’ next to Fred Astaire. (Edward Hausner/New York Times)
By William Grimes
New York Times / September 19, 2009

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NEW YORK - Richard Merkin, a painter and illustrator whose fascination with the 1920s and 1930s defined his art and shaped his identity as a professional dandy, died Sept. 5 at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. A longtime teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, he was 70.

His wife, Heather, said he died after a long illness.

As an artist, Mr. Merkin traveled back in time to the interwar years, creating brightly colored, cartoonish portraits and narrative scenes of film stars, jazz musicians, sports heroes, and writers. His illustrations appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s, but he was at least as well known for his outré fashion sense and eccentric collecting habits.

“He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler, and Dali,’’ the writer Tom Wolfe, a friend, wrote in an e-mail reminiscence Tuesday. “Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining great mustaches in the art world.’’

After graduating from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1960, he received master’s degrees in art from Michigan State University in 1961 and the Rhode Island School of Design in 1963. For the next 42 years he taught painting and drawing at RISD, commuting every week from New York.

“What made Merkin so sought after as an illustrator was his eccentric approach to modernist art,’’ Wolfe wrote. “He used Modernism’s all-over flat designs - that is, every square inch of the canvas was covered by flat, unmodulated blocs of color of equal value, creating not three but two dimensions - but his works were full of people.’’

Among other offbeat claims to fame, Mr. Merkin appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,’’ in the top row between Fred Astaire and a Vargas girl. He was not well known at the time, but on a visit to London he had struck up a friendship with British pop artist Peter Blake, who was at work on the cover art for “Sgt. Pepper’’ at the time. The rest is a small footnote to history.

Mr. Merkin wrote the column “Merkin on Style’’ for GQ from 1988 to 1991, holding forth on a subject he knew more about than practically anybody else. A key to his philosophy was the dandyish notion of fashion as aggression.

“Dressing, like painting, should have a residual stability, plus punctuation and surprise,’’ he told the fashion publication The Daily News Record in 1986. “Somewhere, like in Krazy Kat, you’ve got to throw the brick.’’