The Met's Main Event: Brilliant Art Dealer Vollard

How predictable is the Met’s fall schedule? Predictable enough to have us thanking our lucky stars that its umpteen-year roll of stellar exhibitions continues unabated. Case in point: Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, opening on Sept. 14, will highlight the astonishing foresight of the Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939).

Upon opening his gallery in 1895 at the age of 29, Vollard took a huge risk. From our vantage point, the lofty status of Bonnard, Maillol, Matisse and Vuillard is something we take for granted. Vollard didn’t have the luxury of 20/20 hindsight. His embrace of the avant-garde, at a time when its presence was real and its impact controversial, evinced a sensibility that stands in marked contrast to our own generation of hotshot dealers. Vollard, after all, had integrity, conviction and an eye.

Along with works by Renoir, Picasso, Bonnard and Derain, Cézanne to Picasso will feature Gauguin’s portentous masterpiece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898), as well as a triptych by Van Gogh that’s being re-assembled for the first time since Vollard displayed it in a 1896-97 retrospective. That alone guarantees congested galleries, neck-craning and the pervasive chatter of audio guides. On the whole, more than a few moments of aesthetic bliss are undoubtedly in the offing.

From the Met we expect blockbusters, but what of the Frick Collection, its less-encyclopedic comrade-in-quality down the street? In recent years, the Frick has surprised many people—not least its own curatorial staff—with the overflow of crowds lining up to take in a string of intimate, sometimes eccentric and, in the case of the recent Memling show, earth-shaking exhibitions.

How Cimabue and Early Devotional Painting, which opens on Oct. 3, will fare at the box office remains to be seen, but it’s sure to herald artistic pleasures of a high order. Certainly the museum is pleased to highlight Flagellation of Christ (c. 1280), a tempera on panel from its own collection. The painting has only recently been confirmed as the handiwork of Cenni di Pepo, the Florentine painter better known as Cimabue (c. 1240-1302). That makes the Frick’s picture the only known Cimabue in an American collection. Given that few of his paintings have survived at all, a celebration of some sort is clearly in order.

Though Cimabue worked in a Byzantine manner, he is the progenitor of a greater turn to realism and, as such, a point of origin for the Renaissance. He earned the kudos of Giorgio Vasari, the consummate P.R. man of Renaissance Italy, and the poet Dante Alighieri, who saw fit to make Cimabue a bit player in The Divine Comedy.

The mention in Dante’s epic poem did a lot to insure Cimabue’s historical standing, as did his renowned obstinacy—not for nothing was Cimabue nicknamed “Ox-Head.” What is less sure is the role he may have played in the mentoring of a young painter by the name of Giotto. Whatever: The Frick will pair its new find with The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels (c. 1280), on loan from the National Gallery in London, giving New Yorkers an exemplary opportunity to commune with a seminal and stubborn master.

Contemporary abstract painting gets a rare leg up from a couple of our museums this fall. MoMA is fêting the New York–based artist Brice Marden with a retrospective of paintings and drawings, opening on Oct. 29. Beginning with the monochrome panels with which he made his name in the 1960’s, the exhibit will culminate in the open-ended, linear networks that have occupied Mr. Marden for the past 20 or so years. Whether you consider him the Great White Hope of painting or a studious purveyor of elegantly contrived pictorial tics, it will be interesting to see how this Major Rep has fared over the long haul.

At the Whitney Museum of American Art, the work of the youngish Los Angeles painter Mark Grotjahn—he was born in 1968—gets an airing out. (The exhibition opens on Sept. 15.) Mr. Grotjahn’s art has only sporadically been displayed here in the city and remains something of a mystery. As seen on a piecemeal basis in group exhibitions, his zooming, perspectival pictures have fairly stolen the show from the competition. For my money, Mr. Grotjahn’s Untitled ( large colored butterfly white background 9 wings) (2004) is one of the least spurious pieces of contemporary art that MoMA has acquired in recent memory. That the ever-ravenous Saatchi Collection has blessed the artist shouldn’t scare us away from what just might be heartening evidence of abstraction’s continuing vitality.