The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side: Curator Nato Thompson Has the Whole Essex Street Market to Play With for His Latest Show

Nato Thompson. (Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)

Last month the Essex Street Market—the original one, not the current one across the street with the cilantro sellers and handcrafted cheese mongers—betrayed no indication of what it will look once the public art presenters Creative Time get ahold of it this week, transforming the abandoned warehouse into part exhibition hall, part gathering spot and part guidebook on how to live off the grid, for the exhibition “Living as Form.” A few laborers laid electrical wire, or hauled materials into place. Nato Thompson, the chief curator of Creative Time and the driving force behind the show, walked through the empty room, pointing out what was to come.

There was the bathroom in a nearby diner that will be remade as an exact replica of the executive bathrooms at J.P. Morgan Chase; a resident “barter adviser” to advise gallery-goers on where and what they can skill-share; the reconstruction of a “teenage hangout space” by the Philadelphia-based collective Megawords, designed to show that “doing nothing is acceptable;” four tons of “thread waste”—the by-product of textile production—into which visitors can wade, hunting for treasures; and a library of documentation of hundreds of other similar projects from around the world that took place under the “Living as Form” aegis.

“It’s an exploration,” Mr. Thompson said. He wore a checked shirt and cowboy boots, and a thin stubble covered his face and head. In the way that he cocked his eye when he spoke and unfurled his hands, he looked not unlike some sort of storybook wizard made real on the Lower East Side.

“I think people have too much figured out already,” he said. “It’s not good to come with answers all the time. Artists are a litmus test on how the rules are changing. They feel the shifting world around them. It is a chance to think through not just what is or isn’t art but about the particular moment in history in which all this work is being generated.”

“Living as Form,” which opens this Saturday, represents a major moment not only for Creative Time and the kind of art it curates, but also for Mr. Thompson, who will be putting on an exhibit whose size, scope and intellectual ambition at last meet his oversize reputation as one of the most dynamic young curators on the contemporary art scene.

“We know this is an insane undertaking,” said Anne Pasternak, the executive director of Creative Time. “For us, for the field, yes, this exhibition is extremely important.”

It was Ms. Pasternak who lured Mr. Thompson to New York. He was at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, for six years and began to come into the public’s eye in 2004 with an exhibition there called “The Interventionists,” which looked at the way contemporary art was making claims on the world outside the gallery. It featured an inflatable homeless shelter by Michael Rakowitz called ParaSITE; a pie-throwing exhibition by the Biotic Baking Brigade; and The Black Factory by William Pope.L, which pulverized objects that represented blackness, supplied by viewers, and resold them as gifts.

The Boston Globe called the show “an overdose of Sunday school” crossed with “an overdose of naughty political jokes,” but Ms. Pasternak says that artists in her orbit kept on telling her that Mr. Thompson was “the curator of his generation.”

“He was the kind of guy who sits down with artists at a bar and drinks with them and stays up all night long,” Ms. Pasternak said. “He spends a lot of time just being with artists, talking with them, listening to them and thinking about our culture with them. A lot of curators are afraid of artists.”

The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side: Curator Nato Thompson Has the Whole Essex Street Market to Play With for His Latest Show