John McWhinnie Jr., an art and rare book dealer known for his eclectic and inspired exhibits, both in East Hampton and New York City, died in a snorkeling accident on Friday in the British Virgin Islands. He was 43, just shy of his 44th birthday on Jan. 29.
According to his friends, Mr. McWhinnie was with his wife, Maria Beaulieu, when a rip current swept them out into open water. A swimmer was able to save his wife, but was unable to locate Mr. McWhinnie when he returned for him. His body was found later, not far from the reef where he had been swimming.
Jeremy Sanders, a colleague of Mr. McWhinnie’s who succeeded him as the curator of Glenn Horowitz’s East Hampton gallery and store, said on Tuesday that the friends he had spoken with were still struggling to grasp the news, because of its suddenness and the uncharacteristic nature of the activity. “Snorkeling in the Caribbean was a very un-John-like thing,” he said on Tuesday. He was not known for taking vacations unless they were associated with book fairs or his wife’s jewelry design business.
Mr. Sanders said he would remember Mr. McWhinnie for his generosity, both with his knowledge and with objects. “He was great at expressing himself through books, art, and ephemera. There was also this great oral tradition. It was interesting to hear what he had to say about any particular thing. I always picked things up from him. There was so much that was said that was never written down.”
Heidi Sanders, who worked with Mr. McWhinnie for years until last May and is married to Mr. Sanders, agreed. “My first reaction after the shock was that this amazing vault of information in his mind was now gone forever. He was a master storyteller and when he would recount the background of a book or work of art, even if I may have heard it a million times before, I would find myself sidling up to the person he was speaking to just to hear it again.” Into the narrative he would weave theory and art history “to make anything sound interesting, but the material was always deserving.”
While he “could never resist talking about his books with any interested party,” Ms. Sanders said that he often retreated upstairs “to be alone with his books.”
He began his life in Lewiston, Me., where he attended high school and met his wife in 1983. He graduated from Boston College with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy and was working toward a doctorate at Fordham University when he joined Glenn Horowitz in East Hampton. He remained there for eight years and then opened a store in New York City with Mr. Horowitz in 2005, where his name was also on the door. He had been dividing his time between East Hampton and New York City ever since, most recently at John McWhinnie at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller and at a new site this past summer called Local 87, both on Newtown Lane. The two also created their own imprint to publish artists books called JMc & GHB Editions.
In a 2011 interview with Peter Sutherland, Mr. McWhinnie said it was while working in Columbia University’s rare book and manuscript library that he realized he might be cut out for something other than academia, even though it took him a while to commit to changing careers. It was the chase that he enjoyed most about collecting and dealing in books: “the pursuit of the book that no one thinks exists, or if they think it exists they figure it is no longer attainable. And, once I find that book, because I usually do as I’m relentless in my pursuit, I love cataloguing it,” finding the information necessary to “make it a living artifact, not just a museum-bound mummified object.”
One noteworthy discovery was Neal Cassady’s copy of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” on a bookshelf in a small English town. Cassady was the inspiration for that book’s main character, Dean Moriarty. Because he had started his collection with beat literature: works by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, it was a personal triumph as well. The exhibit now on view at the New York City store is a collection of beat greeting cards.
He also enjoyed collecting books and ephemera from Andy Warhol’s Factory, punk rock singles, and work from other rebellious artists up through today. “He was drawn to that which was subversive,” Mr. Sanders said, including those who reacted with rebellion to the everyday. “He was not politically rebellious, but drawn to those who posed substantial questions to the ordinary way of doing things.”
In an interview for the Opening Ceremony blog, he said he spent time with Hunter S. Thompson in Aspen “ingesting his own form of medicine while cataloguing his archive and nearly being driven off the road at 90 miles per hour just to get a snack at the Woody Creek Tavern at 11 p.m.”
His exhibits featured artists such as Richard Prince, who was also a client, Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, Mary Ellen Mark, Richard Hell and Christopher Wool, Brigid Berlin’s needlepoint, Stephen Sprouse, and Steven Klein. His East Hampton exhibits featured South Fork artists such as Peter Dayton, Jameson Ellis, Mike Solomon, and Nick Weber.
Mr. McWhinnie is survived by his wife, his parents, John and Betty McWhinnie, who still live in Lewiston, and a sister, Lisa Paradis, who lives in New Jersey. As of Tuesday, Mr. Sanders said he believed Ms. Beaulieu was still out of the country waiting for her husband’s body to be released.
He said memorial services would likely be planned in New York and East Hampton at a future date.