Richard Merkin

Painter, illustrator and dandy

Born: 1938, in New York.

Died: 5 September, 2009, in New York, aged 70.

RICHARD Merkin was a painter and illustrator whose fascination with the 1920s and 1930s defined his art and shaped his identity as a professional dandy.

As an artist, Merkin travelled back in time to the interwar years, creating brightly coloured, cartoonish portraits and narrative scenes of film stars, jazz musicians, sports heroes and writers. His illustrations appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Harper's, but he was at least as well known for his outr fashion sense and eccentric collecting habits.

"My sartorial aspirations lie somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington," Merkin once said. He favoured custom-made double-breasted suits of his own design, bowler hats and homburgs, and boutonnires. He would occasionally stroll the boulevards of Manhattan sporting a cane. In his closet hung inspirational photographic portraits of his idols, the diplomat Anthony J Drexel Biddle and the film star Adolphe Menjou.

"He was the greatest of that breed, the Artist Dandy, since Sargent, Whistler and Dali," the writer Tom Wolfe, a friend, wrote in a reminiscence. "Like Dali, he had one of the few remaining great moustaches in the art world."

Merkin's pet obsessions covered all manner of ephemera and exotica, from Fiestaware ceramics and Big Little Books to baseball players from the Negro and Cuban leagues. He was particularly keen on vintage pornography, an enthusiasm he shared in two books. Velvet Eden (1979), written with Bruce McCall, showcased his collection of early amateur pornography, and Tijuana Bibles (1997), written with the photojournalist Bob Adelman, paid tribute to the sexually explicit comics Americans bought across the Mexican border from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Richard Marshall Merkin was born in Brooklyn and attended public schools. By high school he was already showing signs of creeping dandyism, making his clothing purchases at a store on Fulton Street he called "the Brooks Brothers of the zoot suit".

After graduating from Syracuse University with a bachelor's degree in fine art in 1960, he earned master's degrees in art from Michigan State University in 1961 and the Rhode Island School of Design in 1963. For the next 42 years he taught painting and drawing at RISD, commuting every week after he relocated to New York in 1967.

Merkin showed for many years at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery, where patrons puzzled over titles like The Certainty of Hazard, Flaubert in Egypt and Child of Eisenhower. His buoyant palette and fusion of history and autobiography, an approach influenced by R B Kitaj, made his work both intriguing and perplexing. He enjoyed playing with recondite references, although many of his later paintings were straightforward portraits of notable figures such as Joan Didion and Fran Lebowitz or old-time sportsmen.

"What made Merkin so sought after as an illustrator was his eccentric approach to modernist art," Wolfe wrote. "He used Modernism's all-over flat designs – that is, every square inch of the canvas was covered by flat, unmodulated blocks of colour of equal value, creating not three but two dimensions – but his works were full of people, rendered in the same fashion, in comic poses and situations and extravagantly caricatured."

Meanwhile, Merkin's career as a dandy flourished. As his taste evolved from zoot-suit to preppy to retro, he developed a close working relationship with the Manhattan tailor Vincent Nicolosi and shared clothing notes with an inner circle of like-minded Manhattan males that included Wolfe, Eddie Hayes and Bobby Short.

Among other offbeat claims to fame, Merkin appeared on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, in the top row between Fred Astaire and a Vargas girl. He was not well-known at the time, but on a visit to London he had struck up a friendship with the British pop artist Peter Blake, who was working on the cover art for Sgt. Pepper. The rest is a small footnote to history.

Merkin wrote the Merkin on Style column for the US version of GQ from 1988-91, holding forth on a subject he knew more about than practically anybody else. A key to his philosophy was the dandyish notion of fashion as aggression.

"Dressing, like painting, should have a residual stability, plus punctuation and surprise," he told the fashion publication The Daily News Record in 1986. "Somewhere, like in Krazy Kat, you've got to throw the brick."