We should thank our lucky stars that Tim Burton (b. 1958) doesn’t seem to be a compulsive cleaner, otherwise we might not be able to see the wide range of his drawings and doodles—from recent to back when he was just a kid, predating the several years he spent at Disney—that are part of MOMA’s retrospective of this director’s oeuvre (November 22 through April 26). Even back when, his boundless, macabre imagination came across like a laser beam.
MOMA clearly had fun with this installation (organized by Ron Magliozzi, Jenny He, and Rajendra Roy), evident in the showier elements of the exhibition. You enter through a giant gaping mouth set piece, passing several monitors showing the disturbing-yet-endearing animated World of Stainboy. Then comes a room lit by black light, including a recently-made space module-like sculpture of an older sketch, and neon works that pop in the black light, prior to entering the main gallery hall. It’s closer to an amusement park than a museum, which is entirely appropriate.
Costumes and props from blockbusters—Edward Scissorhands’ full costume, and Batman’s rubber cowls—are prominent. But it’s the cumulative effect of the many drawings on view that makes a powerful statement about his vision, and underscores that imagination and persistence are a powerful combination. (Complementing Burton’s own hand are many drawings and sculptures by others of his film characters.) Burton walks the line between cute and bizarre, making it appealing. The dead, undead, mutilated, castoff, retread, have all held great appeal for him, but in every alien, even every machine, lurks some characteristic that makes it empathetic. Most importantly, he has managed to get his films produced to be seen by the masses.
Some of his most beloved characters include Jack Skellington of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Edward Scissorhands, and the crew from Mars Attacks! It is understandable if you’ve forgotten that he directed huge films such as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Planet of the Apes (2001), and Big Fish, in addition to signature films like Beetlejuice, Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (You perhaps missed the gala, which was hosted by some kids named Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.) Of course, in addition to the exhibition, which contains roughly 700 artifacts, MOMA’s screening his films, where the magic comes to life, preserved to roil the emotions of generations to come.
Images: (top) Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958). Untitled (Romeo and Juliet). 1981–1984. Pen and ink, marker, and colored pencil on paper, 12 x 16″ (30.5 x 40.6 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton. (bottom) Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Directed by Henry Selick. Shown: Sally, Jack Skellington. Credit: Touchstone/Photofest © Touchstone Pictures.