♥ NY Art Book Fair is a month-long series of posts focused on the exhibitors of the New York Art Book Fair, presented by Printed Matter, Inc., Nov. 5-7th at MoMA PS1, and sponsored in part by Opening Ceremony. Here, I interview the rare bookstore and art gallery-owner/cultural encyclopedia John McWhinnie.
Taxidermy. Day-glo posters. The copy of On the Road
that Jack Kerouac inscribed to Neal Cassady. A collection of punk 45' vinyl records. The life mask that Cecil Beaton had his face cast into. Richard Prince collages. Scott F. Fitzgerald's drinking flask (which is at least double the standard size). What do all of these have in common? The place they call home.
John McWhinnie's rare bookstore and art gallery is a treasure trove of cultural artifacts from the 20th and 21st centuries. Specializing in avant garde art, literature, photography and design, the gallery buys and sells rare and out-of-print collectible editions of books and also mounts related exhibitions in the space.
For such decidedly 'downtown' material, it seems strange for the gallery to be tucked away in a townhouse on a quiet street in the Upper East Side, where it's more common to come across dental offices and embassies than places where you can pick up 1930s pornography, or "Tijuana Bibles." But it is precisely that tension and harmony in differences that best encapsulates McWhinnie and what he does. Despite having dedicated himself to PhD work on Foucault, he always harbored an interest in counterculture, counting punk, great modernist photographers, the beats, and "weird 80s stuff" among his interests. As a result, McWhinnie can wax lyrical on post-structuralism as much as he can on rave culture, Richard Avedon, the Charles Manson murders, and so much more.
Check out these photos of his gallery, which is well worth the trek uptown, and be sure to stop by his booth at the NY Art Book Fair!
Sofia Cavallo: How did you start selling rare books, what has your trajectory been?
John McWhinnie: I began collecting beat literature. My heroes, at the time, were Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs. I was working on my doctorate, had training in a rare book and manuscript library, and began to sell some of my collection (a very painful experience, but necessary) to help make ends meet. Turns out I was a pretty good book selling punk and the biggest rare book dealer of the time, Glenn Horowitz, took notice. He made me an offer I couldn't refuse, hard as I tried, and I eventually joined his firm. From there I worked hard to unite all my passions, books, art, photography, design, high and low culture - all to blend and mingle, some say mangle, the distinctions between high and low culture. I think they illuminate each other, so my goal is to place the profound next to the pathetic, the ordinary with the sublime, the perverse with the pedestrian. I don't know what to make of it all, usually, but it always keeps me interested.
SC: What do you like best about your job?
JM: It's all me. I've never strived to emulate a canon and a lot of what I think is essential to our culture I'm sure others see as insignificant. But it's the search for archives, books, letters, manuscripts and ephemera that makes my job so stimulating. And then I feel like I'm doing something out of Bob Dylan, bringing it all back home to the gallery and mixing the medicine. If it works, it's a potent drug, even if I'm usually my own audience. And if it fails, I only have myself to blame.
SC: What's the most drastic thing you have done/what's the farthest you've gone to acquire a book or object?
JM: Some of the most memorable: I've spent days with Hunter Thompson in Aspen ingesting his own form of medicine while cataloguing his archive, and nearly being driven off the road at 90 mph just to get a snack at the Woody Creek Tavern at 11 p.m. I've put up a famous photographer, writer (and myself) at the Chateau Marmont for a week to create work for an artist's book I published, Wives Wheels Weapons
. I've spent weeks in a moldering basement of a graphic design revolutionary picking through decomposing rat bodies, wearing a filtration mask to eliminate the toxic smell of cat pee, all to uncover the remains of a great avant-garde visual designer's archive. I've tracked down perhaps the greatest association copy of 20th century literature, Neal Cassady's copy of Kerouac's On the Road
. Neal was the inspiration for that novel's main character, one of the greatest characters in western literature, Dean Moriarity. And I eventually found it in a small town in England sitting on an open bookshelf without a dustjacket, hiding in plain sight.
SC: How difficult is it to part with some of these extraordinary objects?
JM: Very. I like to think that I got into this business as a collector, and as such, by selling rare books I'm able to own, temporarily, what I, in most cases, could never afford. And if it takes me longer to sell some of the pieces I'm especially fond of, so much the better.
SC: Kindles. Love or hate?
JM: Jury is out with me. Nothing will ever replace the phenomenon of reading a book. It's so much more than a mere read. It's a portal to that occasion in the summer, on the beach, reading that thriller (some of my books I can still smell the ocean and occasionally sand drops out of them when I pick them up again). In other words, they are madeleines, transporting you back to an experience, a lovely sojourn in Italy, a windswept October next to a fireplace reading Joan Didion, your first discovery of Sylvia Plath, first relationships.
SC: What are you reading right now?
JM: I tend to have a number of books going, one for each room I spend some time in. In my bathroom I have great catalogue from Met's show last year of the Pictures Generation. Beside my bed, Patti Smith's Just Kids
and Roberto Bolano's 2666
; by my comfy chair next to fireplace, Louis Begley's critical bio of Kafka, The Tremendous World I Have Inside my Head
; at the gallery, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain
SC: What book have you read the most number of times?
JM: Borges, all the stories. Too many times to count. Paul Auster's New York Trilogy
, probably six times. Read his Ghosts
over and over. It's a metaphysical detective story. Doesn't get much better.
SC: Who, dead or alive, would be present at your ideal dinner party?
JM: Hard question to answer: Dinner parties for me should always be intimate - a few friends, good food and wine. My friend Dave Sokolin is a rare wine dealer and always brings great wine to any feast we have... and he's got to be about the world's greatest social glue... he binds everyone together with his spirit and keeps the conversation going. So he'd be there. I've always wanted to meet Borges and Walter Benjamin. Dorothy Parker for her ability to put people down and still be a return guest, dinner after dinner. And James Franco. Just saw him in Howl and he was brilliant. Allen Ginsberg was important for me as a writer and rare book dealer. He helped me curate my first show at Columbia Univeristy. Franco seems like one of these humans that, like Ginsberg, have an insatiable appetite for life and experience.
SC: What's your favorite bookstore in Manhattan?
JM: The Strand's rare book room.
SC: What are some of the titles you will be offering at the NY Art Book Fair?
JM: I have a collection of unique artists books by Richard Prince, quite a few Warhol artists books, a Harmony Korine
and Christopher Wool collaboration, a portfolio of Kim Gordon's Noise Paintings I just published, plus my usual combination of punk, new wave/no wave zines, mixed with a lot of other ephemera of the last fifty years.
SC: Sounds great. We'll see you there.
John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz
Bookseller and Art Gallery
50 1/2 East 64th Street
New York, New York 10065
Photos by Sunny Shokrae
NY Art Book Fair
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