Richard Merkin, R.I.P.

On Labor Day night we lost one of our great dandies and a singular character, the artist Richard Merkin, who passed away at home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Merkin was a painter, an illustrator for The New Yorker for many years, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, a columnist for GQ, a teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of the great collectors of antique pornography, and one of the great flaneurs and boulevardiers of the late twentieth century.

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I met Merkin shortly after arriving in New York in the early seventies, through our mutual friend Jean-Paul Goude, and I found him almost intimidatingly charming and elegant. Merkin was a throwback, in terms of his sartorial splendor, but it was more than that. Merkin dressed almost as a revolutionary act, as if through ignoring the prevailing fashions he could challenge the cultural decline they expressed. Merkin adhered to a higher standard. He didn’t simply collect and wear old clothes, Merkin was a rebel in bespoke, designing his own garments, which he had tailored to his exacting specifications. Note the cuffs on his sleeves. He was a perfectionist to the smallest detail.

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Richard Merkin was born in Brooklyn in 1938 and he held degrees from Syracuse and RISD (where he served on the faculty for more than forty years), but no degrees are given anywhere for the sort of learning Mr. Merkin attained. He was a polymath in the arts of the cultural substrata, an historian of the nexus that determines style. His distinctive work hangs in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution. Merkin was very successful as an illustrator, with many book covers and New Yorker drawings to his credit.

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Merkin was also an enormously influential figure among his students and among younger artists, setting an example for the idea that one needn’t be a part of a movement or follow the trends, and that the most rewarding path was blazing one’s own. As a painter he had a most distinctive style—astutely colorful, romantic, and dreamy.

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A connoisseur of the elusive and evanescent, Merkin knew a good and a rare thing when he saw it. Merkin’s personal porn stash was distinguished enough to be catalogued, as it was in Velvet Eden: the Richard Merkin Collection of Erotic Photography (Bell Publishing, 1985), with commentaries by Merkin and Bruce McCall. Merkin’s naughty collecting also resulted in Tijuana Bibles: Art & Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies, 1930s-1950s (Simon & Schuster, 1997), which documents the popular publishing phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century in which popular cartoon characters like Blondie and Popeye went hardcore, behaving as they never did on Sunday.

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He illustrated Leagues Apart: The Men and Times of the Negro Baseball League, which a labor of love. Merkin was a huge baseball fan. In his later years he basically traded in his splendid tailored wardrobe for a casual style. I was shocked at first to see him at the Odeon, downtown, with his young protégé Duncan Hannah, dressed as if for a baseball game. But Merkin wasn’t dressed for a Yankees or Mets affair, but more like a 1948 baseball game, wearing a vintage silk barnstorming team jacket and a cap from one of the Negro League teams.

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Merkin’s renunciation of his dandy stance was a major cultural event, at least in my eyes. What did it mean? It seemed like a sort of self-imposed exile. Merkin, for lack of broad acclaim in the art capital, had taken himself to the woodshed upstate, to paint in relative anonymity amongst the rustics. His paintings continued to sell. His collages seemed to get better and better, but one felt a certain bitteness or bittersweetness in him at not being recognized for the marvel he was and the rare and subtle spectacle that he presented. Had Merkin left to punish himself for failing to seize the high ground in time? Or was he punishing us by denying the city his irreplaceable example and company? Probably both.

Probably the best circulated image of Merkin is the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album. He’s in the back row along with Aleister Crowley, Mae West, Lenny Bruce, Carl Jung, and Bob Dylan. That was the league he belonged in. But these times are slow to recognize greatness in art, dress, personality, or spirit.

Merkin passed in his sleep, perchance in a dream, and hopefully will dwell in the Isles of the Blest.

I Was On to Representative Joe Wilson

On Wednesday, September 9th, Representative Joe Wilson (R.-S.C.) shocked the nation by interrupting President Obama's speech on health care to a joint session of Congress, shouting out "You lie!" and pointing his finger. He surprised the President and his aides, the Democratic membership, and most of the Republican membership with this unprecedented violation of protocol. I, however, was not surprised. I have been watching Wilson for some time, noting strange clues hidden in his sartorial style. He wears lobster-bib ties that could be concealing electronic devices as well as cultist-size lapel pins, often more than one, large enough to serve as antennae. Superficially Wilson's is simply an unfortunate style, common enough in the lower House.


But he also wears wears magnetic SUV ribbon ties.


He seems to wear permanent-press shirts exclusively, which contain chemicals that might possibly cause outbursts.


His ape-length jacket sleeves indicate that he may experience occasional bouts of "Hulk" syndrome.


At the time of the incident his shirt appears "stuffed." And he is carrying an electronic device in his pointing hand, as well as a glazed angry look.


Rep. Joe Wilson, in light gray, is not really an extra long. He lies.


Wilson habitually wears repp/club combo ties with remarkably ugly or cryptic devices on them. One wonders if they represent Southern secret societies. Note the crookedness of his index finger.


Is Wilson, seen here with brain trust, wearing two beepers, or is the small device with two blue lights a vibrating ultralight lie detector? Maybe that's how he came to believe that Obama had lied!


Here is Wilson heckling the President of the United States. Notice the crookedness of his pointer finger, and that he appears to be sitting between twin or cloned Republican representatives. Perhaps the very large cufflink visible on the pointing hand is remotely controlled.


My Next Ride

This weekend our pal J.A. was up in our neck of the woods (literally), and he dropped by in a Tesla roadster that was lent to him by a friend who happens to be a stockholder in Tesla Motors. It just so happens that my country estate, Bumfields, is located in an area that is frequented by sports-car enthusiasts and motorcyclists because of its natural beauty and the curvy, well-engineered, and uncrowded roads. Fortunately these enthusiasts are usually driving Triumph TR3s, Austin Healeys, and vintage 911s, and not those vulgar late-model Lamborghinis and Ferraris that mark a dual excess of money and testosterone. The Tesla certainly stood out on our street, which mostly sees traffic in tractors, hay wagons, Volvos, Priuses, and Subaru Outbacks.

Yes, this deep blue, low-slung car—which resembles the Lotus Elise it shares some parts with—would have turned a lot of heads in the neighborhood except that it doesn’t make any noise. It sneaks up to you, at high speed, which I appreciate since everyone in my neighborhood is always waving at me to slow down.

When the Tesla first appeared this year my interest was piqued. For one thing I have long been fascinated by the maverick genius Nikola Tesla, the inventor who pioneered commercial electricity and who seems to hold the world record for being ahead of one’s time. Although Edison got the credit and the money for electricity, Tesla was in fact the creator of the alternating current, and the electric motor.


Much of Tesla’s work was hindered because of his eccentricity, his foreign origin and contacts, and his rather bohemian lifestyle. (He lived at the Waldorf Astoria and hung out with Mark Twain.) He was also not modest about his genius and how he had figured it all out and was going to revolutionize the world. Which he did, though not quite as grandly as he expected. Tesla was perhaps the greatest genius of his time, but his PR was terrible, and despite his amazing accomplishments he suffered from characterization as a “mad scientist”of the sort that later ruined Wilhelm Reich. But his discoveries contributed to the development of radio, radar, x-rays, lasers, and radio astronomy. And in a way, to this incredible car.


I wasn’t up on just how spectacular an achievement this plug-in car is. I have driven a Prius hybrid but this is a whole other creature. This machine has no engine, just an electrical motor, although it looks like a traditional rich man’s toy. I expected it to be peppy, but I was not prepared for the actual experience. After climbing into the cockpit, and it is a cockpit, I had to be tutored in how to start it. Mainly because it makes no noise except for the hum from the battery, which was audible at the same level while it was parked. It was eerie backing out the driveway silently, but that was nothing compared to stepping on the….no, not the gas, the accelerator. My God! The Tesla Roadster Sport is a rocketship. Or maybe a UFO is a better comparison. This car does 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds. I did it myself. Silently! A full second faster than a Porsche 911, a tenth of a second faster than the quarter-million-dollar Ferrari F430. That’s remarkable enough, but the way it feels is astonishing. It hugs the road like a go-kart. This is by far the best-handling car I have ever driven, I guess in part because Lotus, the British manufacturers of the world’s best-handling cars, collaborated on the Tesla Roadster. The tires are super sticky and the considerable weight of the battery is perfectly balanced. I don’t know how close I came to flying off the road into a tree, but it never felt like I was close.

The most alien thing about driving a Tesla, aside from the eerie quiet, is that you don’t feel any shifting. This is an automatic, two-speed transmission. The tach goes up to a 14,000 rpm redline. With electric you get all the torque, all the time. Forget shifting. Floor this and you’re not in Kansas anymore. Flying around corners with just the sound of the wind, it was like being on the world’s fastest sailboat. Maybe they should sell a CD of high-revving gas engines for drivers having a tough time making the transition to quiet.


And, of course, you get 244 miles on a charge that costs about $5.

I was sold. This is the ultimate adult toy. It outperforms all those gas-guzzling cars that are the opposite of green, so nobody can knock you for it. Of course there are negatives. Like no room for the kid and the dog. Like maybe room for one set of golf clubs. So now I'm thinking maybe the answer is the Tesla S, the sedan that is due in 2011. The sedan will start at $49,900, including a $7,500 Federal tax credit, compared to over $100,000 for the Roadster, and it will be sold with battery-pack options, starting at 165 and going up to 300 miles.


The Tesla S looks a bit like a Maserati, and although it's not as fast as the Roadster, apparently it will keep up with the pricier German sedans. At half the price of the S550 I'm driving now, this car will apparently turn in a half-second faster, 0 to 60 time. And I'm told you can pack even more groceries into it. I'm thinking of putting my deposit down quite soon. I think Nikola T. would heartily approve.