Robert Longo: St. Louis Rams (Hands Up), 2015, charcoal on mounted paper, 65 by 120 inches, at Metro Pictures, New York.

 

At the VIP reception of this year's Armory Show fair (Mar. 5-8), I met up with Christopher Y. Lew, the Whitney Museum of American Art's recently appointed associate curator, who was already stalking the aisles. Lew, who is in his early 30s, came to the museum this August from MoMA PS1, where he had spent eight years rising through the curatorial ranks. He curated several notable group shows there, as well as solo presentations of artists like Flaming Creatures director Jack Smith and the controversy-courting performer Clifford Owens.

Since arriving at the Whitney last summer, Lew has been hard at work with the curatorial team installing a collection show that will open the new Renzo Piano-designed building on Gansevoort Street on May 1. Titled "America Is Hard To See," the exhibition will trace the museum's history, featuring works made over the last 115 years. Lew will present his first curatorial efforts in the museum's new building this fall, and his carefully selected route through the fair reflected a serious look to the Whitney's—and America's—past, present and future.

This year's edition of the Armory Fair once again takes place on Piers 92 and 94 on Manhattan's West Side, with 199 galleries from 28 countries. Pier 92, the contemporary section, hosts a staggering 143 stands. A special Armory Focus section on the Middle East, North Africa and Mediterranean (MENAM) region is curated by Omar Kholeif.

Lew's focus remained largely on American artists, and first up was Zipora Fried's work, on view in the booth of the Lower East Side gallery On Stellar Rays. The artist herself, in owlish spectacles, greeted Lew and asked when they could next get together, given his demanding schedule. "Maybe in the next 10 years?" she joked. "We can leave it open." Lew gravitated toward one of Fried's new large "iterative" drawings, Mauve and Blue Violet (2014), telling me that the Whitney owns an earlier piece in graphite from the series. Lew explained her arduous mark-making process, in which she creates horizontal rows that cover the page, each composed of vertical lines in colored pencil. Gallery owner Candice Madey added that Fried works four to five hours a day for four or five weeks on a single piece. Madey compared the rows in Fried's drawings to the horizon lines in her work across other mediums, like landscape-based photography and sculpture.

A change of pace awaited us around the corner at Nicelle Beauchene's stand, where Lew stopped to admire new photographic works by Chris Wiley. Lew included the artist, who splits his time between New York and Los Angeles, in his appropriation-themed "Taster's Choice" exhibition at MoMA PS1 last year. The pieces on view are part of Wiley's "Dingbats" series, named after the boxy style of vernacular architecture prevalent in Southern California that Lew deemed "lowbrow modernism." Lew remarked on the "hilarious combinations" of everyday images Wiley presents and the motifs on their frames, which are covered with building materials like formica or carpet. He singled out an image Wiley took of a piece of fencing butting up against a lush expanse of lawn, bordered by a frame covered in beige carpet. "Street photography is a paradox in L.A.," Lew said. "It is the thing not seen while people are driving."

A new sculpture by Michael E. Smith, an artist featured in the last Whitney Biennial, caught Lew's eye at Berlin's KOW gallery. The untitled piece, composed of two whale vertebrae and a piece of metal wrenched from a ladder, was complemented by a selection of austere works by the German artist Franz Erhard Walther. Lew called Smith's work "mysterious and enigmatic." Raphael Oberhuber of KOW added that the sculptures have an anthropomorphic bent—"If something sticks out, it's an arm."

From there, the easygoing Lew ran into several enthusiastic Whitney supporters. He said quick hellos to museum committee member Kati Lovaas and collector-about-town Peter Hort. Brooke Garber Neidich, the co-chair of the Whitney board, then steered the curator to some small Alex Katz paintings at the booth of Galleria Monica de Cardenas. "It's almost like he's a young artist again," Lew said, recalling that Katz also recently joined Gavin Brown's stable.

Chelsea's P.P.O.W. gallery drew Lew in next, where he shared more Whitney history. First he contemplated an iris print by the iconic feminist performance artist Carolee Schneemann called Dead Engineer—Kosovo, 1999, with collaged images of the artist performing various actions, like drawing a heart in blood in the snow and kissing her cat. Schneemann recently staged Rumors, an experimental invite-only performance, in the Whitney's new lobby space, as part of a performance series organized by Jay Sanders to test the viability of such events in the building. At the back of P.P.O.W.'s booth hung a painting, similar to one in the Whitney's collection, by Martin Wong, a Lower East Side artist who died of AIDS in 1999. The large, stylized canvas depicts a gate at the entrance of a church on Avenue B. Lew described the painting as a "reflection on an old New York that is quickly disappearing."

On that sobering note, we made our final stop at Metro Pictures, where Lew paused at the Robert Longo drawing St. Louis Rams (Hands Up), 2015, installed on the booth's outer wall. "Initially you just see a football figure," Lew said of the "cinematic, visually arresting" hyperrealist charcoal depiction of the St. Louis Rams player Kenny Britt. "Then you look closer and you see the gesture is from the Michael Brown Hands Up protests. This image represents so many aspects of America today."

With hot-button topics on the brain, Lew said goodbye and raced off to the opening of "The Radiants," a group show about ecological disaster at Bortolami in Chelsea. Curated by Jacob King and UNITED BROTHERS, an alias for the fraternal artist duo Ei and Tomoo Arakawa, the show coincides with the fourth anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.