New York

Richard Merkin

Terry Dintenfass Gallery

Richard Merkin is a signal painter, but a casualty of the style that he assiduously originated. For almost a decade, Merkin has promoted a ranging fusion between Synthetic Cubist form and a nostalgic enthusiasm for the iconography of the period between the wars. For a while, it was possible that this amalgam could obtain, particularly since so much progressive art was taking sustenance at this very iconographic source—Roy Lichtenstein’s objets d’art and paintings were ironic minimalizing conceits on Hollywood Moderne, and Frank Stella’s emerging interest in relief was stylistically prefigured in Art Deco ornament. Certainly, Andy Warhol’s notion that the central artistic message is glamour is bound to his appreciation of Hollywood’s focus on stars. These three artists, however, are very different from Merkin in that their period enthusiasms were linked either to senses of abstraction or to non-painterly technologies.

Despite Merkin’s early attachment to period imagery, the formal realization of his work is painfully retardataire. The machine into which Merkin’s ’30s arcana is fed is the decorative Cubism of late Jacques Villon. This pretty visualization, in the triteness of its formal options, devaluates Merkin’s elegant imagery into a conventionalized illustration. The problem is rendered more evident if we introduce R. B. Kitaj’s work. He too, in the last few years, has been drawn to this type of period imagery, although where Merkin’s is glossy, Kitaj’s is seedy. Merkin’s is apolitical or grand bourgeois; Kitaj is drawn to English socialist themes and Orwellian proclivities. In this plebeian slant, Kitaj’s work would seem to have the upper hand—at least it points to a better world—although both artists are subverted by their formal mechanics. To keep the record straight, Merkin preceded Kitaj in his attachment to ’30s motifs.

What is difficult in Merkin’s new work, say Bobby Short at the Cotton Club or Nelson Algren in Chicago, is that this subject matter can no longer be buoyed by our broad-front interest in the ’30s style. Not long ago such oblique and campy themes sufficed to express a heroism of taste—a concept originated by Baudelaire’s dandy, who, through acts of radical taste, was able to incarnate the sense of the new. For a while, then, Merkin was interesting, but only insofar as we found his thematic interests radical. For Baudelaire, as for Merkin today, the enemy of radical taste is public acceptance; and since Merkin’s work divides so neatly into form and content—and since both his form and his content are now fully recognizable for what they are—conventions of taste—Merkin has painted himself into a corner. A very serious one. When taste is all—psychology, strategy and activism—then how does the artist go about rethinking his art into a new radicalism? The answer is that he is not likely going to. This perhaps being the case here, the real spectacle we are dealing with becomes that of the revolutionary as courtier. My hope is that Merkin, so obviously intelligent, has already recognized this possibility, and in having recognized it will be able to overcome it. To exculpate the artist a bit: is it not this flashy and flattering aspect of Warhol’s recent work that renders it dubious too?

Robert Pincus-Witten