Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Better Days: Tom Wolfe on Richard Merkin—1992

It’s no secret that I love Tom Wolfe and loved Richard Merkin. Well, actually, I still love Richard Merkin. There’s enough of Richard on my walls and in my sartorial literature files for me to consider him still here.
I love Tom Wolfe’s dandified cocksurety – his Southern lilted verbal aplomb when gracefully responding to such charges as his novels aren't really novels and indictments that cry "for God’s sake man, get a better f_cking editor." I won’t characterize Wolfe’s posture and conversation as self-deprecating because it isn't  Here’s my take—Wolfe has an ivory, tight-twist gabardine swathed, steely, courteous elegance. With a scant lisp.
And then we have Wolfe’s  great personal friend, Merkin. If I was ever limited to one depiction of Merkin, it would be Alan Flusser’s take on the multifaceted flâneur…and I paraphrase loosely here because I’m too lazy to walk across the room and pull the reference. But Alan said that “coming upon Merkin on the street is like walking through a Bazaar in Marrakesh. You don’t know what to look at first!” Bam. I mean really. Merkin was Brooklyn and Coney Island to Wolfe’s Richmond and Yes Ma’am No Ma’am.
Both may be assigned to the Sartorial Dandy Pantheon but their nomination dossiers, while equal in content, would be thematically opposite. The case for Wolfe’s membership would be firmly affixed to an unwavering, off-white, monochromatic gaggle of forensics. 
Merkin’s on the other hand, wouldn’t be firmly affixed to a damn thing – At least not one singularly thematic thing. His bipolar variance in color, texture, epoch and melody made my fuzzy-ass closet look like a storage rack of  identical burgundy choir robes. I’d reckon that Merkin’s folder would surely contain his own words when he posited that his sartorial style was “somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington.”  
Photo from Rose Callahan's Dandy Portraits
And I just think it’s cool as hell to have friends—true friends—those anything but Facebook defined friends—you know—the ones who would come get you at three in the morning. Well that was Merkin and Wolfe. I borrowed from Rose Callahan, this photo of Merkin, Wolfe and their other great friend, lawyer Eddie Hayes.
I’m always on the lookout for Merkin ephemera...having all of his GQ columns that he wrote over twenty years ago and of course, the treasures that his widow, Heather, sent me after Merkin died. And recently I came across a few  exhibition catalogues from Merkin's gallery shows back in the early 1990’s. And much to my delight, Tom Wolfe wrote the introduction to the Helander Galleries’ 1992 Merkin show, Better Days. Unlike you high-minded, copy editors-in-another-life, critics of Wolfe’s words,I, the verbose lexiconical rambler my-damn-self, would read Wolfe’s grocery lists if they were availed to me. So reading his Helander-Merkin treatise was great fun. Shut the ___ up. 
 So this morning, with reverence but without permission from Bruce Helander or others who might have copy rights and prefer that I not transcribe Wolfe’s essay, I typed from the exhibition catalogue, one friend’s erudite commentary on contemporary art in general, in tandem with his more specific efforts to convey and characterize the other friend’s art.  For those who, like me, love art and Wolfe and Merkin, I hope you enjoy reading it.
 “The paintings and pastels of Richard Merkin are part of a strain of Modernism that is well established in England, the home of his natural brethren, R.B. Kitaj, FrancisBacon, Peter Blake Lucien Freud, Ronald Searle, Henry Lamb, Michael Andrews, StanleySpencer, and David Hockney. They are what might be called the Modernist Wits. This creates a problem – even for Bacon – since within the art world, and especially the American art world, Modernism and Wit are a contradiction in terms.
Merkin like his confreres, uses various stylistic devices of Modernism; in his case, two-dimensional pictures, solid blocks of color, abstracted shapes, conventional contours, unshaded forms, and so-called all-over design, in which no part of a picture has any greater weight than any other, All that is on the credit side of the ledger up in Art Heaven, of course. But Merkin, like the other wits, presents subject matter that violates one Modernist taboo after another. As tout le monde, or tout lemonade d’art, knows, a picture is not supposed to tell a little story, suggest an anecdote, be funny, make you cry or get angry, tune up the sentimental side of your nature, illustrate the world around you, dwell upon historical details for their journalistic or historic value, or present likenesses for their own sake. Alas, these are sins that Wits wallow in.
The art world will allow exceptions from time to time, the most notable being Picasso’s large cartoon comment on the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, painting at a moment when anti-Fascist feeling and Left sentiment had reached their apogee among European and American intellectuals. Guernica was expressly designed to make the viewer weep and get angry over Francisco Franco’s bombing of civilians(and will probably be viewed by art students in the 21st century, with their damnable detachments from the problems of our epoch, as a howler, one of the most ludicrous pictures ever taken seriously by well-educated people). It is worth noting that Picasso never attempted such pictorial comment again, returning forever after to the safe and fashionable imagery of classical mythology.
Pop Art wasn’t even an exception. The Pop artists never illustrated the world around them or even created their own images from it. Pop was a studio game played within a tight set of Modernist rules, eventually codified by the Pop Apollinaire, Lawrence Alloway. The Pop artists took their images not from life but from art created by anonymous graphic artists and industrial designers including flags and numbers and letters found in commercial printing fonts. Some, such as Warhol, never did anything other than lift images directly from existing commercial art or photographs, altering only the size and coloring, if that much. Others did near-copies. The game, said Alloway, consisted of producing pictures that were neither abstract nor realistic but rather had to do with “sign systems.” There is not a single painting within the canon of Pop in which an artist attempts his own depiction of life in the extraordinary decade in which Pop grew up, the 1960’s.
Underlying the Modernist stance, whether one is talking about style, content or theory, is the belief that the great artist is a holy beast , a natural who receives flashes, known as inspiration, straight from the godhead which is known as Creativity. A holy beast is not a rational, calculating, analytical, and intellectually detached person. In fact, in the Modernist view, rationality, calculation, analysis, and detachment are detritus, impediments to creativity. The Modernist artist is supposed to be like the Gnostic Christian, who sought to get rid of the detritus of civilization in order to reveal the light of God that exists at the apex of every human soul. Draftsmanship, true rendering, perspective, and shading are all analytical undertakings. So are wit, satire and commentary. In the Modern view these are all pieces of age-old junk that must be thrown out.
In England the art world – which consists of about five hundred dealers, curators, professors, critics and artists in London, Oxford and Cambridge who determine all matters of taste – has never been completely dominated by orthodox Modernism. There has remained some room in which the mavericks such as Kitaj and Bacon could cut up. But in the American art world, which consists of about 300 similar souls (some 300 of whom do not live in the New York City area) orthodoxy is a far more solemn business.
Merkin’s very picture titles, Van Lingle Mungo’s Havana, Our First Detective of the Broken Heart are a gob of spit in the face of Modernist taste, since they actually describe the pictures, which are loaded with specific historic references, and are shamelessly entertaining. Stylistically, Merkin has been as Modern as any of the Wits. Particularly in his Van Lingle Mungo period, the mid-1970’s, his work was rigorously two-dimensional, his contours were highly conventionalized, his canvases were covered edge to edge and corner to corner, with solid color shapes of equal density, field and figure were given equal emphasis, no matter how amusing the figures – and the figures tended, like Mungo, a one-time pitcher for theBrooklyn Dodgers, to be long gone down Funny Street. The typical Merkin picture takes legendary American images – from baseball, the movies, fashion, Society, tabloid crime and scandal – and mixes them with his own autobiography, often with dream-style juxtapositions. Merkin himself is always recognizable as the toff with the Cold Stream Guards mustache, popping up amid the romp.
In the past he has been as much a colorist and all over designer as,  say, Matisse or, to bring the matter closer to home, Malcolm Morley, an Australian now living in the United States (who could perhaps be included in the ranks of Modernist Wits). In his most recent work, however, Merkin has begun to violate even the stylistic taboos. In 1990, in paintings such as Re: Joe Stern #2, he began to use a draftsmanship more sophisticated, more in the vein of 1920s European satirical art, than anything allowed in the Modernist canon. In the current show, he gives us graphic focal points such as the white figure in pith helmet against a swath of black in Our First Detective of the Broken Heart. The focus is re-emphasized by the use of lines of perspective in the roof above. This is not the Modernist way.
The truth may well be the Merkin is impossible to characterize even with a grouping such as the Modernist Wits. The fascinating thing, in the last analysis, is not that he is in some way like Kitaj or Bacon or Searle or Spencer of Hockney or that the whole crowd has swum upstream – but, rather that he, like them, his kinfolk, has managed in an age of High Orthodoxy to become that rarest of creatures, the artist who is sui generis.”


GSL said...

Very interesting;excellent post!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Max, this is a dang doctoral dissertation worthy of its own hood + regalia. Honors level. I bow.


J.P. said...

Wow. What an amazing post. I also am a very big Wolfe fan, so I especially enjoyed reading a piece of his writing and learning of his relationship with Merkin.

I just want to say that despite coming to your blog for the mutual lighthearted love of "fuzzy dice" style, I want to share my thanks for consistently teaching me new things about culture and life.

Have a great holiday.


Anonymous said...

"I want to share my thanks for consistently teaching me new things about culture and life."

JP, I join you in this. From Max I have a quiver of vocabulary arrows filed and ready. Like last weekend, my beloved caught some hearsay at the golf course that a lefty had just dropped off his new left-handed clubs at the local thrift ['blame the clubs' is very good for local thrifts around here]. Beloved being a lefty could not get in his car fast enough, or so he said when he walked in the door. Without the clubs. But the bag in his hand contained a hundred pounds of black disco porn star leather leisure jacket, one collar point heading west, the other east. No returns. So I removed the collar, cut northwest and a northeast angles, am praying for a miracle, but if I hadn't had Max's vocabulary words to cheer me up thewda process I'd a went berzerk.


ADG said...

Flo...I'm worried as hell about what's goin' on over at your house.


Anonymous said...

I thought I had posted this, but maybe I mistyped the secret code...
Wolfe himself is a better-than- average hand at drawing. His charcoal sketches illustrating his earlier essays fall somewhere between Ralph Steadman and Alfred Hutty. Check 'em out.

Mister Artisticker

ADG said... ain't mistyped the code. You just need to back off the hooch. Ralph Steadman...ain't nobody down there knowing no Ralph Steadman.

Anonymous said...

"Flo...I'm worried as hell about what's goin' on over at your house."

Heck, I didn't even mention the ongoing downtown-to-uptown lapel conversion process involving repeated ministrations of hair dryer, stacks of books, two synthetic cutting boards.

Tay ya Momma I axe how she durrin, and Merry Christmas Max.


Squeeze said...

Merkin strikes me rather George Grosz.

Ian from Downunder said...

I just want to wish you, LDG and my fellow Maxminimusers a happy and safe festive season.

Peace on your homes!

PS- Bad news. I'll be in Washington next October and hope to share a dram or 2 with you.

Cheers from old Melbourne town.

ADG said...

Ian! We'll have more than a dram or 2. I was looking through my files in prep for writing my GI Joe post that I just finished, I found your Rifleman email! Stay tuned. were just bored over there.

Squeeze...yep. I can see that.