Merkin, a painter and illustrator who taught at RISD for 42 years, was much splashier — favoring bowler hats, boutonniéres, and custom-made suits like the striking, orange-hued tweed Irvin and Brewer showed the Phoenix this week.
"My sartorial aspirations," he once told the New York Times, "lie somewhere between the Duke of Windsor and the Duke of Ellington."
But Merkin, whose 1992 and 1999 donations to the RISD Museum were an inspiration for the show, was not simply a clothes-wearing man. He was a complex figure: his drawings extravagant and perplexing, his style bracing and influential.
Little wonder, then, that "Artist/Rebel/Dandy" presents him as a sort of culmination of the craft and complexity laid out in the rest of the show — as an embodiment of the intricate dance of caricature and substance that defines the dandy.
In one of his style columns in GQ magazine, titled "A Toff for All Seasons," Merkin recalled coming across a Providence student "wearing an ancient black topcoat that brought me to a state of attention bordering on the catatonic."
He approached the young man and found, in the breast coat pocket, the label of an esteemed British tailor. The coat, moreover, had been made for one of his idols, J. Drexel Biddle Jr. — a World War II-era diplomat considered one of the world's best-dressed men.
Merkin borrowed the vintage garment so it could be replicated by his own tailor. But the copy, however fine, was not the same as the original. "The whole affair did teach me a lesson about clothing (and life)," he wrote, "which is simply that even the most adroit of artisans cannot fabricate a dream."
David Scharfenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.