A Springs Artist’s Creative Odyssey

Astonishingly beautiful and utterly unique books
The artist Barry McCallion with the tools of his trade Mark Segal

    Artists’ books have taken many forms. The ’70s were a sort of golden age, when boundaries between mediums had dissolved and so many artists were creating books and other ephemera that Martha Wilson founded Franklin Furnace in Tribeca as a repository for such work. In 1993, the Museum of Modern Art purchased the Furnace’s collection, which had become the largest of its kind in the United States.

    These thoughts come to mind when visiting the artist Barry McCallion’s house in Springs, where he creates his astonishingly beautiful and utterly unique books, an artistic treasure trove in an unexpected spot. Situated on Flaggy Hole Road, literally a stone’s throw from Maidstone Beach, it has been the full-time residence of Mr. McCallion and his wife, Joanne Canary, since 2000. It is the same house — though much changed — that his parents rented from 1943 until the early ’50s.

    Before showing a visitor his own work, Mr. McCallion brought out Riva Castleman’s “A Century of Artists Books,” which traces the development of the form from the late-19th century. “What this does nicely is to show the entire range,” Mr. McCallion explained. “At first, illustrations were subordinate to text, then there was a gradual transition to a point where text and image had equal weight, and eventually artists began creating textless books.”

    Born in the Bronx, Mr. McCallion’s first involvement with books was as an English literature major at Columbia. After graduating, he moved to the West Coast, earning an M.F.A. at Claremont Graduate University. It was there he become involved with Fluxus, an international network of artists, composers, and designers noted for blending different artistic mediums and disciplines in the ’60s and ’70s. Among the dozens of artists associated with Fluxus were Joseph Beuys, John Kale, Allan Kaprow, Yoko Ono, and Carolee Schneemann.

    Recalling his introduction to the group, Mr. McCallion said, “When I was in California I was doing conceptual pieces. John Cage’s ‘Silence’ was very important to me. So I wrote to him. I said, ‘Here I am, all of 24, doing work nobody else is doing out here.’ ” After a pause, he added with a laugh, “I didn’t yet know Ed Ruscha’s work.” It was John Cage who told the artist that Dick Higgins, a composer and poet, and other members of Fluxus, were coming to California.

    “There was suddenly an impactful group that arrived on the West Coast,” Mr. McCallion said. “Dick Higgins, Emmett Williams, and George Brecht were all important to me.” Mr. McCallion traveled in England with members of Fluxus for a year, then returned by boat, docking in Montreal. From there he settled on a farm just across the Canadian border. “I realize now we should have driven farther south. Living off the land wasn’t fun,” he said. “At least not for me.”

    A grant from the Berlin Artist Program (DADD) took him in 1975 to Berlin, where he stayed for four years and met his wife, who was teaching at the John F. Kennedy School there. This was followed by a two-year grant from the Gardilanne-Moffat Foundation that provided him with a studio in Paris. He returned in 1981 to the United States, where he worked for two years managing a photo-retouching studio. In 1983 he was awarded a two-month artist residency from the Australian Arts Council, followed by a month in New Zealand, courtesy of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. “I like to say I ran out of countries that were willing to support me at that point.”

    His involvement with books began in the early ’70s, when he created a character he calls the oarsman, “which came in part from my literature background and my having read the ‘Odyssey’ far too many times.” The oarsman would travel from place to place and experience different things. Mr. McCallion created a series of collages at first, then provisioned the boat with two and three-dimensional pieces, including food and books. “The oarsman’s library was the first series of visual books I made. In all, I did around 35.”

    By the late ’90s, he stopped the series because it was losing its mystery for him. “As O’Neill said, ‘the kick had gone out of the booze,’ ” he said, laughing. An avid surfcaster, Mr. McCallion then wrote several short stories about fishing, which, to his surprise, he sold to a high-end, glossy fishing magazine. He followed that with two unpublished novels, written over a 10-year period. “I proved it was just as hard to get something published as it was to get something exhibited.”

    In January 2011 he started the second oarsman’s library, in which sometimes the character appears, sometimes the boat, sometimes neither. Before long, he showed the books, which were purely visual, to Priscilla Juvelis, a rare-book dealer in Kennebunkport, Me., who agreed to represent him. She suggested he put text in some of the books. “I said if I did add text, I would do Joseph Conrad’s ‘Typhoon.’ I had such a good time I did five versions of ‘Typhoon,’ as well as several involving the character Kurtz from ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Using text let me revisit books I loved.”

    Mr. McCallion’s books use an impressive range of materials and techniques. In one, he drew with white ink on a volume of black pages. In another, the center of each page has been replaced with a square of clear plastic, so that you see not just the drawing on the page in front of you, but also the drawings behind it. Mr. McCallion does a lot of cutting. In “Typhoon,” for example, he created three-dimensional dioramas of a stormy sea framed by fragments of text. In “Heart of Darkness” he adds to pasted bits of text his own hand-written version of the same fragments.

    Other books include Dylan Thomas’s poem “Fern Hill” and “Gold Mountain,” inspired my Maxine Hong Kingston’s characterization of the way immigrants imagine the U.S. Another volume, “Interiors,” consists of collages, for which he found a paper with a sticky underside — the principle of contact paper — that allows him to make collages without glue.

    It’s difficult to do justice to the variety and complexity of the books in words or in photographs. They are ideally experienced by hefting and opening the boxes and exploring the contents in what becomes a very personal exploration of an artwork. In September, the Amagansett Library offered a hands-on book-share of more than 30 of Mr. McCallion’s books. Five are on display in a vitrine in the library.

    “A book is wonderful because you can spin out so many ideas,” Mr. McCallion said. A tour of his library of handmade books reveals that remark to be an understatement.

Left, a page from “Typhoon,” the source for which was Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name. Right,this work from the early 1970s is actually a composite. The innermost rectangle is a painting purchased at a flea market that Barry McCallion “extended” onto the outer rectangles.