The bold new space of this year’s Whitney Biennial opened up exciting possibilities for curators Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, as well as the more than 63 artists and collectives they worked with to build this year’s exhibition. J.P. Morgan was proud to sponsor the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
Mr. Lew reflects on an intense experience creating one of the largest, most controversial and exciting events in today’s art world.
J.P. MORGAN: How in general does a curator assess the success of an exhibition?
CHRISTOPHER LEW: There is no one way to measure the success of a show. There are so many parties involved from artists to museum staff to the broader public. One thing that is important to me is for the artworks to be presented in a manner that is true to the artist and invites viewers to spend time with each piece. It’s been a really rewarding experience for me to watch visitors experience individual works and hear the connections they’ve drawn between different aspects of the Biennial.
J.P. MORGAN: Tell us about your vision for the show and what you are most pleased with in terms of its fulfillment.
CHRISTOPHER LEW: Mia and I aimed to create an exhibition that reflected the period in which we conducted our research, and, to a certain extent, the moment we are living in. We followed the lead of artists and there were many projects that were realized specifically for the Biennial. It’s been thrilling to see things take shape—installations by Larry Bell, Samara Golden, Asad Raza, for example—and many others that we could not fully envision until they were made on-site at the Whitney.
J.P. MORGAN: What were you most surprised by? What did you hope to have happen that didn’t?
CHRISTOPHER LEW: One of the projects that surprised me most was Rafa Esparza’s room-sized installation made of adobe bricks. As an immersive space, it was a moving, deeply meditative environment, unlike a white-cube gallery. It felt spiritual, evoking the senses through the smell of the bricks, a shift in humidity, and the dampening of sound, with everything falling to a hush.
J.P. MORGAN: Which artworks changed in meaning for you because of their particular installation in the museum?
CHRISTOPHER LEW: We installed Henry Taylor’s paintings and Deana Lawson’s photographs in the same room and that opened up new ways of seeing their work and the connections between the two of them. Henry and Deana have long been friends with an artistic dialogue that was further reinforced by bringing their works together. To me, their shared concerns in capturing the everyday, especially aspects of love and dignity within Black life, were made even more apparent.
“The Biennial has also shown how important art is to the world at large, how art can strike a chord whether that is as a spark of recognition or a raw nerve.”
J.P. MORGAN: How has what you learned from this year’s exhibition influenced your thinking about new exhibitions?
CHRISTOPHER LEW: Making the Biennial has been a tremendous experience and it will take a lot of time to fully process all of it. This show has certainly showed us fresh ways to work with the new building, from the windows overlooking the river and the city, to the grand staircase, and even our Wi-Fi network. The Biennial has also shown how important art is to the world at large, how art can strike a chord whether that is as a spark of recognition or a raw nerve.
J.P. MORGAN: Tell us about the experience of co-curating. What was it like to have someone to discuss ideas with but who could also challenge you?
CHRISTOPHER LEW: Co-curating the show with Mia has been an amazing experience. I think I can speak for both of us in saying that we learned a lot from each other in the process and also learned about ourselves too. It’s not until one has an intellectual foil through the development of a project like this that one understands one’s own way of thinking. And the funny thing was that on several occasions when we disagreed on something, sometime later, we’d end up switching positions, and advocating for the other side!
We were proud to sponsor this year’s Whitney Biennial, known for its view into the current moment in contemporary art and showcasing artworks by some of the most innovative artists working in the United States.