Art museum tie-ins to popular culture can come off strained or contrived. But Tim Burton is not Star Wars, he's an individual artist with a unique and fascinating aesthetic whose work happens to also be popular. And the Museum of Modern Art has a long history of presenting cinematic art, from D. W. Griffith to Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen to Pixar.
It's a good combination. With Tim Burton, the Museum has unearthed an embarrassment of riches, and the curators have taken pains to place Burton's films in the context of his large body of work rather than vice versa. The show works because of Burton's artistic talent and encompassing imagination.
From materials ranging from childhood notebooks (apparently his mother kept everything) and a winning poster design for a sanitation campaign in Burton's home town of Burbank, CA, to props from movies (Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice) and new sculptures created for this exhibit, the MoMA curators have assembled a vast, almost overwhelming selection of items. While a few (e.g. cowls from Batman) merely represent a design aesthetic, and others (like drawing exercises) are included only to fill in a gap or demonstrate a point (e.g. that Burton was a trained artist), the majority of the items merit classification as artworks. These include hundreds of sketches and drawings, a number of accomplished paintings and sculptures, and of course film and video selections.
Through several rooms one can trace Burton's evolution: imaginative kid, fledgling filmmaker, unhappy Disney animator and concept artist, Polaroid snapshot artist, cartoon provocateur, lover of the eccentric and macabre, and of course, ever since PeeWee's Big Adventure (1985), auteur of note. The exhibit itself doesn't provide much context for Burton's artistic vision as a filmmaker, aside from depicting his own development as a visual artist (and sometimes writer). I didn't feel this lack, however, until I'd had a day or so to digest what I'd seen; the sprawling exhibit is a satisfying multi-couse meal for even the casual fan of the films. And, fortunately, Curatorial Assistant Jenny He has also put together a screening series of seminal works that influenced Burton. (There are also showings of all fourteen of Burton's feature films.) MoMA's commitment to film as an art form is clearly as strong as ever, but this exhibit is not just for cinephiles.