The main attraction at the Met Breuer these days is “Mastry,” the big Kerry James Marshall retrospective that has recently moved there from the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and which will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, this spring. But for those who went to see it up to the day after New Year’s, I was giving this advice: First, go upstairs to the fifth floor, where you’ll find an exhibition of some 70 works by Paul Klee, all culled from a group of 90 donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984 by the German art dealer and collector Heinz Berggruen.
There were a couple of reasons to start with Klee. The first was scale. The works of the great Swiss modernist are all quite modest in size; they invite you to come in close to appreciate their nuances. Most of Marshall’s paintings, by contrast, are on a grand scale, as befits his ambition to create a kind of contemporary history painting, and they are best taken at some distance. But the more important reason to have seen Klee first was that it might have helped you understand Marshall better. The two artists share more in common than might be apparent at first sight. An encounter with Klee’s delicate balances—between earnestness and wit, didacticism and playfulness, representation and abstraction—could give you a keener appreciation for Marshall’s poise in handling similar dichotomies. The arrow ostentatiously pointing to a seemingly random spot in Klee’s Stricken City (1936); the funny mix of embarrassment and pride on the face of the titular figure in Boy in Fancy Dress (1931), almost invisible amid a mosaic-like grid of little colored rectangles; the abstract narrative of Episode Before an Arab Town (1923)— I couldn’t help but think that Marshall might feel a kinship with any of these, or even that the tiny gouache Temple Gardens (1920) could have supplied the compositional template for one of Marshall’s own “Garden” paintings, grand and bannerlike though they may be.
Of course, Marshall can elect his own affinities, and he’s done so in a small exhibition of works from the Met collection that he’s installed to the side of his own exhibition. It doesn’t include Klee, but it’s a catholic mix, ranging from modernist abstraction (including a lovely, lyrical 1950 Ad Reinhardt that makes you wonder how he ever turned into the implacable maker of nearly uncommunicative black paintings within just a decade) to Renaissance allegory (such as Albrecht Dürer’s celebrated 1513 engraving The Knight, Death, and the Devil). And then there’s the pantheon of great postwar African-American artists—Jacob Lawrence, Roy DeCarava, Romare Bearden—as well as Japanese prints and African sculpture.
Some of Marshall’s choices seem idiosyncratic, such as his inclusion of a painting by the corny American magic realist George Tooker, or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s strange grisaille remake of his own famous Grand Odalisque (though this might explain something about Marshall’s interest in how color can function as a fiction or artifice). However, the message of the side exhibition is clear and helps us understand what Marshall is up to: remaking the art museum.