Thursday, September 10, 2009

Richard Merkin 1938-2009

I owe Richard Merkin. A lot of people do. It is a debt we hold dear, and can never repay. It isn't so much the style thing that made him the artist and person/personality he was. And who can say if what he brought with him everywhere was that, was style? It may have looked like style, but I don't think it was. In the end what it was, unmistakably of course, was Merkin. But what was that other thing? Panache? I wonder? I think it was really something rather more simple, something more like spice, or garnish. Don't forget the garnish; life is dull without it. Without Merkin at RISD, art and life and love were a little too earnest, a little too serious, a little too posed. Merkin took posing and turned it on its ear!

Most of us have a reasonable fear of appearing the phony; Richard did not. I would have to say he was fearless beyond measure, and he could stare down anyone who might have thought him over the top without batting an eyelash. He was a true descendant of Cyrano de Bergerac! He could be at his most ridiculous and bring a kind of gravitas and bravura to it that instead made everyone else feel a little the fool. I am quite sure that I never once saw him without thinking to myself: what the hell is he wearing? The man had his own dress code! I don't know if you could say that he actually carried off life's charade, because it wasn't about that. No,that didn't matter to him. Making life grand was all that was at stake, and damn the rest! If the emperor was walking down main street in his underwear, it was Richard Merkin who made the parade a smashing success!

And it was his attention to the quality of his life that translated directly into his work; he made it interesting. And why not? That was the point. He claimed to have only painted a couple of hours a day so that the rest of his time could be spent living the life that went into them. He demanded the same of his students, and the effect was contagious. I never had him as a teacher but I knew his teaching. A painting is like a salad, he would say... And you could always recognize the work of his students: fun was the order of the day; play was rule number one; nothing if not invention! Of course, what he prized most in his own work or anyone else's was surprise, no surprise, and above all that certain je ne sais quoi! In French! Richard Merkin's work was colorful in the best sense and every sense, and so was he!

So Merkin invented a dream and lived it. Down to his hundreds of pairs of shoes! When he once said in a lecture that life was only interesting if you lived it in the basement or the penthouse, I was the little shit in the audience that asked what floor he actually lived on. The third. No matter. Mea culpa. The point was well made, and in my own way, I listened. In my own way, I have a little Merkin in me still. If we're lucky, we all do.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


The way I look at it is that art is your basic letter home: this is what I saw today; this is what is on my mind; this is what happened to me; this is what is going on around me, etcetera. You're driving your car, and, you're looking down the road in front of you. You've got a horse, and you're keeping the cart behind it. You're on a journey and you are taking it one step at a time. Write home.

The purpose of clarity is to see with greater depth and accuracy; to see more. It is all very fine to argue for clarity for its own sake; but there is another end here, and that is to make if not the best judgment, at least better judgment, if not the right call, the call that gives you some hope of securing your dreams, achieving your goals, winning safe passage, finding your destination. Clarity is the first step, the right foot forward, setting out on your journey. Clarity is the beginning. But is not the journey, it is not an end in itself, it serves you, it is your friend, just like the truth is your friend, and even pain is your friend, because they help you along the way.

I have known so many people, teachers, or family, who argued for other things at the outset, and this has been a challenge. People unclear about clarity. They apparently had some luxury I never had. Marveling at ambiquity. Even fighting for the right to be wrong, on purpose. Showing up late or not at all. Deliberately shooting themselves in the foot, thinking that some net would catch them.

I recently had to look long and hard at a situation that would profoundly affect me as an artist. Ultimately I was able to find the clarity which allowed me to see far and wide, to apply my knowledge and experience to what I saw not just in front of me, but well into the greatest distance, on the furthest horizon. Not only can anyone else not see these things for us, they don't care to. They aren't even supposed to. We have to see them for ourselves. The consequences not only shape our lives, they become our lives.

When we're young we make decisions without clarity, or even worse, people who are supposed to have our best interests at heart, who are supposed to give us their best, make decisions for us without clarity. Parents, teachers, counselors, doctors, etc. Decisions which affect our entire lives. Beware.

Something which remains unclear to our puritan American culture is the role of art, the role of the artist, and the artist's obligation to society, and their obligation to themselves.

Hence the letter home. Oddly enough when I was 8 years old my stepmother started grading my letters home. Even as a little kid I knew that this was wierd and so wrong. Anyway. There are a lot of people who seek out and hold positions of power who think that life, and art, are contests. Beauty contests, popularity contests. People who think that life is a race to be won. And again, a lot of them are our parents, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and politicians.

But when you're making art, when you're writing that letter home, remember why you're doing it. It is so easy to forget. You're making your way along your path, and you see things, feel things, think things, dream things, and things happen to you, and the ones you loves, and you imagine things, and you want to make things, and marvel at things, and even cry out at things, things like injustice, or suffering, or negativity; or you want to celebrate things, like the wonders and miracles of life; you want to put your best into these letters home; you want to share your life, your vision of life, and you want others to share it with you, to be glad you shared it with them, that your letter home became a part of their lives, enriched their lives, brought something which might bring peace or clarity or wonder or affirmation or strength or meaning to their lives. When you're writing home, of course, you might remember this. You might put aside this business of winning, of getting ahead in some real or imagined race, of showing how good you are, and instead be your best self, and do some real good, to bring all you have to bear, and share in the best you can, in your letter home.

gouache on paper, Rory Parks, 2006

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