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Summer, that season when art museums turn to breezy exhibitions of Impressionism, galleries shut on the weekends, and the torpor runs warmer, is over. The collective meh you hear is unread copies of Go Set a Watchman and containers of O.N.E. coconut water being put back on the shelf. It’s time, then, to consider the coups and entertainments of the 2015 fall season. But before we do, it’s important to review a few watersheds that took place while the culture assumed the position on its beach chair.
First among these: the grand opening of the Whitney’s new downtown home and five-month-long inaugural showcase of its collection, “America Is Hard to See.” (The show runs through September 27.) OK, so the festivities began two months before summer’s official start date, but taken together, the Renzo Piano–designed digs and once-in-a-lifetime survey set a new standard for how museums conduct business. Among other advances, the Whitney has proven that it’s possible to remain accessible without pandering to tourists. Not only has the institution upped the ante on museum construction, it has also set the bar high for the Metropolitan’s March 2016 debut of the Met Breuer, the Whitney’s former home. (The two museums agreed to an eight-year lease on the Madison Avenue property, designed by Marcel Breuer and opened in 1966.) That’s the kind of artistic revisionism a critic can get behind!
While New York’s art world commences a two-month vacation in late June, the Grim Reaper does not. So it was that in July and August, death struck down a clutch of colossal figures who helped make the city what it (sometimes) is: a modern likeness of Medici Florence. Among those who passed away are the collector and philanthropist Melva Bucksbaum (as vice chairwoman of the Whitney, she helped lead the move downtown), legendary Interview editor Ingrid Sischy (she engineered the arranged marriage of art and fashion), dealer Lance Kinz (a champion of emerging artists, he most recently helmed Kinz + Tillou Fine Art), and powerhouse L.A. artist and Underground Museum director Noah Davis (he staged an unforgettable exhibition on the Lower East Side in April). Each of these individuals fought hard to reimagine art’s relation to the world. What more can anyone ask of an art lover? [Editor’s note: September has already struck its own sad note, with the passing of artist and longtime Voice art critic John Perreault.]
Last among the summertime milestones was the unlikely resolution of a pair of legal cases affecting two of art’s biggest names: China’s Ai Weiwei and Cuba’s Tania Bruguera. After being imprisoned by their respective governments, both artists had their freedom of travel curtailed; then, strangely, their passports were returned within days of each other in July. Separately, these artists vindicated art’s most essential attribute — freedom of expression — at significant personal risk. They used art to successfully challenge 21st-century authoritarianism and global commercial culture’s go-along-to-get-along ethos. Ai, who is in Germany, may or may not visit New York before he returns to China (if he ever does). Bruguera, every inch the adopted New Yorker — her art-performance-cum-political-party Immigrant Movement International is based in Corona, Queens — will remain in the city for some time: In July she was named the first artist-in-residence at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
Which leaves us to consider how fall’s offerings will live up to the significant landmarks of the not-so-sleepy summer of 2015. Besides the glut of post–Labor Day Chelsea exhibitions — which include outings by septuagenarian master Chuck Close (Pace), U.S. Venice Biennale representative Sarah Sze (Tanya Bonakdar), and Laura Poitras collaborator Trevor Paglen (Metro Pictures) — at least two museums have kicked off back-to-school with multicultural footwork. MoMA, for one, has swapped its New York–Paris historical axis for a long-overdue exploration of activist conceptualism in “Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960–1980.” And the Met has fully embraced global cosmopolitanism with “Kongo: Power and Majesty,” a five-century tour of Central African sculpture, ivories, and textiles that traces that civilization’s developments before the European conquest.
October and November make for equally challenging art viewing throughout the city. Waiting in the wings are premiere solo museum exhibitions from obsession artist Jim Shaw (New Museum), Middle Eastern conceptualist Walid Raad (MoMA), and 1980s L.E.S. painter Martin Wong (Bronx Museum), as well as the wannabe youthquake that is “Greater New York” (MoMA P.S.1).
Summer is over, but New York’s art holiday goes on all year.
For more highlights of the fall art season, check the Voice‘s 2015 Fall Issue at bit.ly/VV-Fall-2015.