Champion this

Whitney Museum of American Art’s Christopher Lew says young art is up to us
Art | 6 October 2014

Trisha Baga ‘Plymouth Rock 2’ , 2012. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 9, 2012-January 27, 2013. © Trisha Baga, courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins

This article is part of Young Art Week – Defining a generation

Welcome to HERO Young Art Week – our essential, multifaceted guide to the new wave of creatives working at the vanguard of contemporary art today. Across a dynamic week of digital content, we’re exploring what’s happening at the epicentre of this global community: from the ground up, the artists themselves and the key figures witnessing the evolution of the ideas, trends and movements defining this art generation.

Christopher Lew is associate curator at Whitney Museum of American Art, the New York based institution housing contemporary works by an A-Z of 20th and 21st century American artists.

Lew’s move to the Whitney from his previous position as assistant curator at MoMA PS1 (another major NY contemporary art establishment) generated buzz earlier this year, a fuss that no doubt has much to do with the fact that Lew has become known for his tightly curated exhibitions of which young artists are consistently the core. It’s a fair match: the Whitney was founded by sculptor Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney in 1930, a traditionalist in approach to her own work but whose outer interests were founded in the avant-garde artistic movements based around Greenwich Village in the early part of the 20th century.

A recurring theme amongst the brains we’ve been dissecting for Young Art Week is the difficulty young artists are facing in the context of the overwhelming power of gallery structures today, especially in big cities like New York. Which is where Lew comes in – as a young curator and champion of this generation of artists, his perspective on the museum’s – and audience’s – place amongst all this is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

HERO: How would you describe this generation of artists?
Christopher Lew: As with any generation I don’t think it’s possible to describe an entire generation in a few words. Though for artists who were born in the late 70s and in the 80s, there is a shared experience of coming of age in a time of rapid communication and a global sense of art and economics.

HERO: How would you describe the state of young art in America, specifically? What are the trends you are seeing amongst younger artists? What are the issues they are raising?
CL: It’s a time of great plurality. With exhibitions like the last few iterations of the Whitney Biennial, it’s evident that artists are working in a variety of ways. While there is no one movement that defines the work of emerging artists today, there are some concerns that continue to reassert themselves. Performance has become an important mode of art making; so are investigations of the nature of images, how they circulate in the world, and how they relate to objects. There are also many artists re-examining the legacy of Modernism and 20th century abstraction. They are finding new ways to use the visual vocabulary developed by past artists, especially that of painters.

Trisha Baga ‘Plymouth Rock 2’ , 2012. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, November 9, 2012-January 27, 2013. © Trisha Baga, courtesy of Greene Naftali, New York. Photography by Sheldan C. Collins

HERO: Contemporary art communities in places like New York have been said to be very elitist and exclusive. How would you describe contemporary art audiences today?
CL: The art world, or more aptly art worlds, can appear to be a tight community, but I believe we are in a time in which broad audiences are interested in art. The enthusiasm for the Whitney’s Jeff Koons retrospective has been tremendous and it seems like every major museum in New York City is extending hours to be more accessible to the public. In addition, the role of the museum and the physical expansion of them has received much attention around the country. I think it’s a true testament to the civic role of institutions and how audiences recognise that civic responsibility.

HERO: What impact do you feel technology is having on this generation of artists?
CL: Recent technologies have provided even more tools for artists to realise their work. The cost of computing power, 3D printing, and communications – whether it is through Facebook, Instagram, text or a phone call – have all declined, providing more ways for artists to conceive of their art and produce it. As so-called ‘internet natives’, this is the first generation of artists who came of age navigating both digital and analogue worlds.

Trisha Baga ‘Plymouth Rock’, installation view, Vilma Gold London 2012. Courtesy the artist

Kevin Beasley ‘Untitled (Jumped Man)’, 2014. Courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, NY

HERO: What are the major challenges facing this generation?
CL: The major challenges are what we all face, across generations, at this moment. How does one address the growing gap of inequality and the effects of climate change? As people who either think about art or make it, we must also ask what role culture should play in an era shaped by the activities of humanity.

HERO: Who are the two to three young artists who come to mind as doing something quite extraordinary in their field, American or not?
CL: Here are three artists in three sentences: Trisha Baga is finding new ways to create mesmerising narratives through 3D video and installation. Kevin Beasley uses assemblage techniques to make gnarly, evocative sculptures and sound works. Darren Bader’s work challenges traditional conceptions of art and authorship, underscoring how works circulate physically, economically, and digitally.

Darren Bader, ‘Pavement piece 1, cupcakes’ 2014. Courtesy Darren Bader

Stay tuned for more HERO Young Art Week content in the coming days and plug into our social media platforms for updates as they come.


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