It certainly must feel strange for an isolated kid from the suburbs of California to have hundreds of his drawings and objects ensconced in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. No less so because he is known for his films rather than his drawings. Yet if the opening crowds are anything to judge by, most museum-goers are nothing but thrilled to see this exhaustive exhibition of 700+ works related to Tim Burton's career. The crowds are right, for the same aesthetic binds Burton's early work to his later films.
Face the crowds you must, if you want to wander through the strange byproducts of Burton's imaginative mind. MoMA created a great entrance: through the mouth of a monster you enter a black and white striped hall lined with TVs playing a series of Stainboy animations. Then you enter a dark room where a carousel turns to creepy carnival music and glow-in-the-dark paintings on black velvet stare out at you. Next you enter the well-lit, white-walled galleries of MoMA – but even here things don't return to normalcy. The walls are filled with hundreds of sketches of monsters and people on everything from canvas to cocktail napkins.
A dark humor pervades Burton's stark aesthetic as he humanizes monsters and robots into somehow appealing, vulnerable characters. The sketches on view, often related to films he subsequently made, are true to this style. A painting of a blue woman with skin stitched together predates his character Sally in the 1993 film Nightmare Before Christmas. Some of the captions are quite funny, such as the image of a man with a gun next to a crazed kerfluffle entitled "Never shoot a constipated poodle." To add to the melange, the floors and walls have models from his movies, such as standing monster figures and cuckoo clocks. If you don't mind the crowd bustling around you, you can stop to watch some of his early short films, like his 1982 take on "Hansel and Gretel."
The final room has pieces from Burton's more recent films, such as costumes from Batman Returns and straight razors from Sweeney Todd. This movie ephemera is the most recognizable part of the show, and maybe the least interesting, at least to me. By this point, you have seen hundreds of Burton's works. There is a lot to see at the exhibition and it is all strange. The best possible way to make sense of it is to see one of Burton's films, conveniently enough playing downstairs – the museum has put together a film program devoted to Burton's work. While the collection upstairs is more evocative of the creative process, seeing the finished product reminds you how good Tim Burton is at his chosen art form. Much more than the weird drawings upstairs, his films reveal him to be an artist.
Which brings up the interesting question of why MoMA would show the sketches (which act more as a think pad than as "art") of a talented film director in a retrospective (when his career likely has many movies ahead of it). It seems very much like pandering for publicity to a wider audience. If that is the case, I predict it will be a successful ploy. People showed up in droves for the member previews, and the people waiting in line to have their book signed by Tim Burton took up MoMA's entire atrium.
The show is nicely done, letting the audience view the mechanics and development of Burton's fascinating aesthetic. While much of the work being shown is delightful and interesting, the highlight – for me at least – is being able to go to MoMA's theater and see his films, from the early short Vincent to the great Edward Scissorhands and later blockbusters like Batman Returns.
On view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 22, 2009 – April 26, 2010.