Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tim Burton Art Exhibition at MoMA

Posted by Beau

With my schedule full of decidedly non-NYC things to do over the next few weeks, I seized the opportunity to go see the Tim Burton exhibition now featured at the Museum of Modern Art in Midtown, NYC.  The special showing is sponsored by the SyFy channel and is a collection of Tim Burton's art including drawings, sketches, paintings, sculptures, and other related items from his movies and animated shorts he's directed and produced over the course of several decades.

As with most special exhibitions at art museums, no photography was allowed so the best I could do was snap the "Tim Burton Chronology" wall that led into the exhibit itself.  As I approached the entrance, the docent kept repeating, "Do not take pictures of the Tim Burton.  Do not take pictures of the Tim Burton."  I could only wonder if this meant Tim Burton was actually somewhere in the exhibit itself and had contractually obligated MoMA to refer to him as "The Tim Burton", something I found weird but for this show, probably appropriate.  It turned out there was a large wall just after the Tim Burton chronology wall that had his name in a large, Tim Burton-scrawl which strangely wasn't allowed to be photographed.  This did not stop a large clot of goth 20-somethings from trying repeatedly.

The main exhibit is several large rooms including a dark room with a black light to show off several paintings done in fluorescent paint, walls covered in sketches and drawings, large and small sculptures set throughout the space, and monitors showing earlier film and animation work.  The flow seemed to follow his chronology from childhood through his teenage years and then into his early art schooling and subsequent animation years.  From there the flow of the rooms focused mainly on his major films which including hand-written notes, sketches, character designs, and actual movie props from most of his bigger movies.  

In all, it had a little bit of everything for everyone and I suspect even the non-Tim Burton fan would find it an interesting look into the process of a distinct artist and their earlier influences.  I've been a Tim Burton fan since the late 80's when I saw the first picture in 1989 of Jack Nickelson as the Joker from Burton's "Batman"movie.  His re-imagining and stylistic version of the Batman comic book character, one I've been more than familiar with for the last thirty years, kicked off in me what has ended up being years of following all of Burton's work.  I would go see his movies simply because he was directing, and collected his art books and short book of short stories "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other Stories".  For me, there are very few directors, if any at all, that have such a distinct and recognizable style which infuses and radiates from anything he does, in any medium.  It has fascinated me all these years.

Being able to go back and see his earlier works, simple sketches and drawings in what I can only assume are volumes and volumes of notebooks, sketchbooks, and the odd napkin or other piece of paper that was handy at the time, draw some clear lines to work that has ended up on screen.  His ongoing obsession with clowns started back in his teens and has carried throughout, popping up in many of his movies in evolving but recognizable ways.  Interesting, an early drawing of a character he named "The Gardener" who had various gardening implements in place of his hands draws immediate connections to the character that would become Edward Scissorhands.  His obsessive love with his distinct, stylized spiral that appears in early drawings was unmistakable and has carried throughout the majority of his work, whether as background wallpaper of a movie set, the repeating pattern in costumes, or the precipitous edge of a sloped hill curling in under itself.

For me, the strength of this exhibition was the addition of various movie props from many of his films.  You could see the art work that inspired the characters associated with the props and often, find hints of these very characters much earlier in his past when they were probably nothing more than an irritating image he wanted to dump out of his head so he could move on.  As I was walking around the movie prop room, I kept remembering all the movies he's directed that immediately had slipped my mind, ,"Big Fish", "Planet of the Apes", "Sleepy Hollow", and "Invasion from Mars" were well represented in props and production sketches.  I was sad to see the deteriorating condition of  Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman costume from “Batman Returns”.  Conversely, I was secretly titillated to see the costumer had sewn in a crotch zipper, never seen in the movie itself, that would let Michelle do her business without having to desheath from all that bound up latex and corsetry.  I’m riveted by these kinds of Hollywood secrets.

What I love about an exhibit like Tim Burton's is it bridges popular culture with the much smaller art world.  There is an entire art world that most people will never access and an exhibit like this one connects the two in such a clear and seamless way.  Someone can be a fan of his movies and be able to see and clearly understand his artistic process, which is not always easy or even possible.  

I do confess that I found myself wondering often as I was looking over his earlier work whether or not he cringes at the sight of a lot of that work and the idea that a ton of people are paying money to walk around and appreciate it as it is hanging on the walls of MoMA.  While the rest of us can stand around gawking and appreciating it for its clear connection to him and his work, how many of us shudder at the idea of someone pulling out our old writings and artwork from our angst-ridden, lonely teenage years and putting them on display and daring to call it art?

The Tim Burton exhibition is currently showing at MoMA on 53rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues through April 26th, 2010.  Tickets must be purchased for the exhibition and have time restrictions so I recommend checking out MoMA's website for more information.  I would also point out that while the main exhibition is on the 3rd floor, additional Tim Burton projects including film screenings, a Polaroid project, topiary, and stop-motion animation works are spread out on other floors of the museum so make sure to get a copy of the program so nothing is missed.  

I actually joined MoMA as a member on this visit which got me into the Tim Burton exhibition free and gets me free admission to the entire museum for the next year as well as other member-specific services.  I intend to more than take advantage of this in 2010 and will definitely make a repeat visit to the Tim Burton exhibit before it finishes in the Spring.


  1. Glad for this, Beau, and have resolved to read the short stories you mentioned.

  2. The stories are absolutely charming if you like melancholy misfits who are odd yet strangely alluring. It's a favorite of mine, without a doubt.

  3. yesterday i had gone there . But the tickets were sold out. As i am not of this country I didnt actually know him by name but has seen many of his movies(which i realized now as i read ur article). so i went near that exhibit to ask whether the entrance was included in the tickets i had or another ticket is needed. The reply was i needed another ticket but was sold out. Then i asked what kind of exhibition is it and when can i get the ticket for which they were so rude''its sold out, no use its not worth coming back for it''. by the lady there and the man with her on the desk. I asked information as it looked like a scary mask at the entrance and my kids r too small for scary stuff. some intelligent people should be kept there instead of such idiots.

  4. sheeja I've had the same problem.

    Worse off, I go to an arts school. So guess what? I go there, I tried to get in. My ID is supposed to get me in free, no matter what, because I attend an arts school. They tell me I still need a ticket; even though that because there's a deal with my school, the ticket is free anyway, meaning that the ticket is literally a worthless piece of paper. But still, they refused to let me in for not having a ZERO DOLLAR WORTH piece of paper.

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  6. Great writing and piece! I too bought a membership so I could get in hassle free. The MoMA store was also having a sale so I saved some money on it with stuff I was buying anyway. You could take pictures of the deer topiary in the garden and they were less protective of taking photos in the theater area. If you check out the photos in flickr under "tim burton exhibit" you will see most people were sneaking photos anyway. Also, timed tickets can still be easily bought online in advance now that the holiday tourists have left town.