Despite his signature mohawk, Christopher Y. Lew has been a ubiquitous but unassuming presence in the New York art world for years. Born and raised in New York City, Lew is a rare example of a homegrown curator who carved out a path for himself through a tried and true combination of hard work and good timing. After eight years spent working his way up the ranks at MoMA PS1, Lew took a position as associate curator at the Whitney Museum in 2014, just as the museum was gearing up to open its new Renzo Piano-designed building on the High Line. Soon after the museum reopened, it was announced that Lew had been selected to co-curate the 2017 Whitney Biennial alongside Mia Locks.
It was just ten years ago that Lew got his first hands-on curatorial experience when Alanna Heiss, founding director of PS1, invited the junior curatorial staff, of which Lew was a part, to organize their own exhibition. The result was an eclectic and soulful exhibition called “Altered, Stitched and Gathered,” which Roberta Smith of The New York Times described as having a “breakout feeling.”
Lew’s shows since then have consistently had a similar effect. At MoMA PS1 he found himself in an unique position, as he was free to use the institution’s smaller spaces, budgets and lead times to his advantage—reacting to the most contemporary issues and emerging artists on the scene. Josh Kline, GCC, Nancy Lupo, Helen Marten, Rey Akdogan and Gavin Kenyon all had their New York museum debut via exhibitions organized by Lew.
An ubiquitous presence reacting to the most contemporary issues and emerging artists
In his first year at the Whitney, it has become clear that the museum, a more established collecting institution with a much wider audience, hired Lew to help strengthen their relationship with young artists. To that end, he has organized ambitious projects with New York-based artists Jared Madere and Rachel Rose, both with their first solo exhibitions ever (museum or otherwise) in the United States. Set to open in June, “Mirror Cells,” Lew’s first group show since arriving at the Whitney, co-curated with Jane Panetta, will explore networks as both a thematic and formal device, featuring a female-heavy roster including Liz Craft, Rochelle Goldberg, Elizabeth Jaeger, Maggie Lee and Win McCarthy.
The 2017 Biennial will undoubtedly be a milestone in Lew’s career. The first step he and Locks took was to amass a team of advisors—including Negar Azimi, writer and editor of Middle Eastern-focused art magazine Bidoun, and Wendy Yao, founder of Ooga Booga and 356 Mission, both community-oriented retail and exhibition spaces in Los Angeles—to establish a dialogue with people from their own generation outside of the institutional art world. The biennial, like the museum itself, focuses on American art, which Lew doesn’t see as a challenge but rather as a generative and productive parameter—an opportunity to question what constitutes “American art” in today’s globalized world. Lew and Locks have been traveling the country, getting lost in research without knowing what exactly they are looking for but hoping to identify larger socio-political issues that feel urgent to young people vis-à-vis contemporary art production. While many of the details are still coming together, one thing Lew points out is a definite: By spring of 2017 when the biennial opens, there will be a new president in office, which he is sure will affect the artists, organizers, and viewers of the exhibition. Among other things.
Christopher Y. Lew (American, b. 1981)
is a curator who lives and works in New York. He is an Associate Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He served as Assistant Curator at MoMA PS1, New York, until 2014.
Lew will curate Sophia Al-Maria’s solo exhibition at Whitney Museum from 26 July–31 October and co-curate, along with Mia Locks, the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
Julia Trotta is an art advisor based in New York. She is currently working on a documentary on her grandmother, the art historian Linda Nochlin.
Photo credit: Sam Clarke