A graduate of Syracuse University, Merkin taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for 42 years, commuting for most of that time from New York City. In addition to having work in the collections of prominent museums such as the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art, he has regularly contributed illustrations to magazines includingVanity Fair, the New Yorker, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. A retrospective exhibition of his work will be on view at the Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson from September 20 through October 28, with an opening reception on September 22 from 6 to 8pm.
Richard Merkin on his work
I was born in Brooklyn. It was a wonderful, wonderful time—New York was a grand, grand place. I was born in 1938. It had all the things that a boy needed, starting with baseball, and going out to Coney Island and to museums. I actually wasn’t a Dodgers fan, but that was just me being contrary. I liked the St. Louis Cardinals because I liked the red uniform, with the bird on it.
I recall that going to burlesque shows was enormously important in my life. Fortunately, I was tall, so even though I was probably 15 or 16 I was able to get into burlesque shows. They were in New Jersey at that time. Burlesque—it was an introduction to sex! It was a whole world I didn’t know about. Also, it was a show-business sort of thing. I liked it a lot, and I went quite often.
I’ve been told that my work is very “New York,” but then, so am I! I was born there, grew up there. Moving back to New York in 1967 and commuting to teach at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] reinforced that influence. I did that for a very long time. At the same time, I was showing a lot of pictures. I became part of a wonderful gallery, the Terry Dintenfass Gallery. Terry was a great dealer, and I liked her immensely. By that time I was living in New York on the Upper West Side, and, eventually, I moved into a studio on 80th Street and Broadway that I still have today.
Trying to look back and make some sense of things, I think my years with Terry were the most important artistic years of my life. Not to seem pompous, but I had lots of success, lots of opportunities to show at the Whitney and the Modern, both of which own my work. I was with Terry from 1973 up until she closed the gallery and passed away.
I love jazz, and jazz singers. Bobby Short, a marvelous singer and piano player, and I were friends for 40 years. I used to go to the Carlyle Hotel three or four times a week to see him play, and we were great friends. It was another classic part of New York.
My wife tells me that the city I talk about is the New York that was, not the one that is now. In short, I think I was in New York during the last great time. It’s not been the same since.
I spent that summer in London, and I became a close friend of Peter Blake and his wife. The next thing I knew, six months later, I got a photograph in the mail of the cover of [The Beatles’] Sgt. Pepper’s, which included a few people like Leo Gorsey and Gandhi, who didn’t make the final cover. There are eight people on that cover who are still alive, and, thank God, I’m one of them. (There’s me, two Beatles, Tony Curtis, Richard Lester the director, and some others.) All those things are cutouts, of course. The photograph of me comes from a very early exhibition catalogue of mine that Peter used.
Nobody was paid anything. That’s one interesting thing about it. At the time, I just thought it was just another record cover. I sold the photograph two months after I got it. What a jerk! I think I sold it for $200. That photograph would be worth $10,000 now!
People say to me, “Didn’t you love the Beatles?” I’d say, “Love the Beatles?! I didn’t give a goddamn about the Beatles!” I loved Bill Evans, I love Bobby Short. Now I like that album [Sgt. Pepper’s], it’s grown on me over time. I’ve been listening to it more lately. I actually had a copy of the very first printing of that album as well, which I kept for a long time, until I loaned it to somebody, and you know what happens when you loan things out: I never saw it again.