The mohawk-sporting curator Christopher Lew has gained a reputation as a champion of interesting emerging artists. This, in turn, has made him someone many art world figures want to know better. During an art fair last year, I watched Lew stroll past the booth of a respected, middle-aged New York art dealer who suddenly snapped to life, shouting, “Chris! Chris!” before awkwardly lumbering after the young curator who seemed oblivious to the fuss.
The attention will only increase this year as Lew, 34, prepares for his biggest exhibition to date. He will be co-curating the 2017 Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art—the first in its new home and its largest ever, given the building’s massive dimensions.
The soft-spoken Lew seems to be taking it in his stride: He’s simply excited to be hitting the road with his co-curator, Mia Locks. The duo has already visited U.S. cities like Atlanta and Boston and is planning where to head next. “Obviously there are big artist communities in lots of cities, so we’re thinking about which places to visit and in what order. We want to see as much art as we can,” he says. “We are going into this without any preconceived notions. In a sense, we don’t know what we’re looking for. We just want to knock on doors and see what’s out there and have great conversations about art.”
This kind of discursive style is typical of Lew’s approach to exhibition making and comes, he says, from working with artists like Josh Kline and Margaret Lee. “When I first saw their work I didn’t know what to do with it because it didn’t fit into the kinds of narratives you’d place emerging art into,” he says. In an effort to understand the work, he spent endless hours with them and other artists “to see what they spend their time doing.”
Lew joined the Whitney as associate curator in August 2014, just before its move into the new building. He had seen a “job posting for someone who was thinking about art made since the year 2000 in a national and international context. It felt like exactly what I was doing at PS1 at that time,” he says.
He had been at MoMA PS1 since 2006, joining as a curatorial assistant and working his way up to assistant curator. “It was a pretty amazing time,” he says. “There were so many curatorial voices involved—Alanna Heiss, Eugenie Tsai, Brett Littman and Klaus Biesenbach—and it was really cool to work alongside these people and see how they were thinking and seeing.”
Lew learns through observing, a skill he probably pickedup while he was a biology major. He had gone to college “to do research in a lab,” but one day, “sitting in physics class as an undergrad, I realized I was okay if I didn’t do this for the rest of my life,” he says. “I was writing a lot of poetry at the time and doing photography—those were the things that were important to me. I realized that walking away from science was not going to kill me.”
He switched focus to English and Spanish literature. As part of his degree he spent time bouncing around different campuses, beginning at Rice University in Houston before spending a year in Madrid, just as the country was on the cusp of switching to the euro. “Young people were thinking about an identity that extended beyond national. It was an exciting moment,” he says. He finished his degree at New York University, in the city where he was born and knew he would return, because according to him, “there are few places in the U.S. with such cultural density.”
He graduated “with no idea what to do as a career,” but a chance meeting with Franklin Sirmans—then the editor-in-chief at ArtAsiaPacific magazine and now the director of Pérez Art Museum Miami—changed his path. Lew knew how to write and Sirmans put him to work for the magazine. Meanwhile, Lew was interning at both the Asian American Arts Centre and at the Aperture Foundation.
His diligence paid off when both the magazine and foundation offered him positions. He accepted both, working as the managing editor at ArtAsiaPacific and in the development department at Aperture. “I was juggling a lot, working in the day at Aperture and through the night for the magazine. I did it for around a year and a half until I physically couldn’t anymore,” he says. “I was super young and I was offered positions I couldn’t refuse. Anyway,” he says with a shrug, “when you’re in your early 20s, you have a lot of energy.”
And in your mid 30s, it seems. In addition to the Biennial, Lew has been spearheading the Whitney’s renewed focus on emerging artists, including two exhibitions dedicated to talents born in the 1980s: “Sophia Al-Maria,” which is scheduled to take place this summer, and “Rachel Rose: Everything and More,” which closed earlier this month. “Flatlands,” a recently opened group show, focuses on five young painters—Nina Chanel Abney, Mathew Cerletty, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Caitlin Keogh and Orion Martin—and came out of conversations within a curatorial working group Lew leads within the museum to discuss “not only ideas for shows, but also some of the broader ideas in the air—things we’re seeing when we’re travelling or in the city,” he says.
He is also working with the young artist Lucy Dodd, who will bring her studio into the Whitney from March 17 to 20 as her contribution for Open Plan, a new initiative for which the museum is giving over its 18,200-square-foot fifth-floor space to artists. And he is preparing for a sculpture show he is co-curating called “Mirror Cells,” running from May 13 to August 21.
The slate is packed, but Lew wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s super fun. You follow what artists are doing and see where you wind up,” he says. A friend of his describes Lew as a “mole in the museum”—focused on the perspective of young artists from within the institution. “It’s fun to be that kind of spokesperson,” says Lew. For him, the best days are the ones in which he discovers the “kind of art that you can’t at first tell whether it’s good or bad or what it’s doing.”