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Experiencing the Tim Burton One-Man Show


TIM BURTON AT MOMA: New Exhibit of over 700 pieces of The art of Tim Burton!


A celebration of “stepchild” art, a stubborn adherence to a unique vision, and a big fat kiss to individuality.


It’s the last day in November and after mulling over the gorgeous new museum show at the Museum of Modern Art, I’m finally sitting down to write about it. It’s the night before Disney plays the new Christmas special “Prep and Landing”, the new show Disney insiders believe will be an instant classic.  This new cartoon owes a huge debt to Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.  


tim burton artinisghts


Anyone who knows me at all knows i have been a fan of Tim Burton’s work for a long time, all the way back to Frankenweenie.  I saw Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993. (or as we call it–with apologies to the Disney owned ABC– “NBC”)  I saw it on opening night, and saw it multiple times.  The first time i remember wondering, “are they ever going to stop singing??”,  then I grew to adore all the songs.  I remember making a special trip to the Disney store to buy all things NBC at the time, finding boxer shorts and a tie.  I was an NBC fan before it was cool, and believe me it took quite some time to be the cult favorite with the diehard fans it has now.  So when “Prep and Landing” becomes an instant classic, they’d better write a thank you note to Tim Burton.  


I watched the short video interview of Tim Burton the day before Thanksgiving.


Burton talked about how, unlike many kids, his teacher supported and encouraged his unique style of drawing and the subject matter he was drawn to, so all day on Thanksgiving I kept feeling so grateful to the great teachers of the world.  My dad is a teacher, and I had some wonderful free-thinking openminded teachers as a kid.  I even give a teacher discount in the gallery.  I can imagine how often unique talent and vision is squelched by a teacher or adult who warns they are too outside the norm and trains them away from developing and expanding truly inventive ideas.  Such was not the case with Tim Burton, and the movie viewing public and fans of art are all the better for it.  The press release by MOMA (a work of art in itself..) says the show “brings together hundreds of artworks and film related objects to trace the trajectory of Burton’s creative imagination.” The curators, who had access to Tim Burton’s entire personal collection, seem to have crawled into his mind and come back out with these 700 pieces to show for it.  What a strange trip it must have been!  

There are several things that struck me most about the show as a whole. One is   how often he created far more as a visual artist than just to get his ideas down onto paper.  There are many pieces of art that seem to be part purpose, part whimsy.  The image of a martian, his robes painted with sparkly red paint.  As a costume or character study, the sparkles are seriously superfluous, but wonderful nonetheless!  Some images that have multiple drawings on them seem to be part doodle, part  model sheet.  It seems often in his work he is in the flow of creativity, creating to create, and if the resulting images aid in a current or future project, he’s all the happier.  


There is a cohesive quality to Burton’s art, consistently evoking the themes of outsiders misunderstood as villains, the crushing uniformity and homogeny of suburbia, and celebrating the genres of classic horror and 50s scifi.  


I always think it’s a good sign that a director uses the same collaborators over and over in their work, and Tim Burton is definitely one of those directors.  He has partnered on multiple occasions with production designer Rick Heinrichs, and costume designer Colleen Atwood, both of whom are Oscar winners, and many soundtrack fans know Danny Elfman through the many Tim Burton movies for which he has created scores.  There are pieces included in the show by both Heinrichs and Atwood, and Elfman’s music is played throughout the exhibit.  There are also pieces by the great storyboard artist/screenwriter Joe Ranft, who’s career was cut short when he died in a car accident in 2005.  


About the show:  The sheer volume of art is daunting.  Visitors enter through a big Tim Burton created creature mouth, and walk a long hallway down which multiple screens are looping “The World of Stainboy”, a series of cartoons created in 2000 by Burton, based on characters in the book “The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy”. 
I was pleased to see, as i came in and out of the show that day, so many people sitting and watching each episode from beginning to end.  If you go I recommend you watch them, because they aren’t easy to find elsewhere.  The hall opens into a dark room with some glow in the dark paintings and a large sculpture in the corner. 


Then you walk though a door and enter the first main gallery.  This part of the show is broken up into 3 parts.  It starts out when Tim himself was just starting out, with early childhood drawings as well as images he created as a teenager.  This part is called “Surviving Burbank”.  There are many pen and ink drawings, some films he shot on a super 8mm, and a children’s book he created and submitted at Disney, where he dreamed of working. (!!)


 The second section is called “Beautifying Burbank”, which was also the name of an art contest he won that was sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.  This section shows his progression as an artist, and features some of the drawings he created while apprenticing at Disney.  At this point in the show, I already got a sense of just how prolific Burton is, how much he has always seemed to depend on his art to guide his vision and express the many (often dark) rooms in his imagination.  My eyes were assaulted in the best possible way with bright colors, and gray scale pen and inks.  Hundreds of drawings, along with fully rendered paintings, sculptures, and screens showing his many animated and live action shorts surround you as you continue through the show to the third section, “Beyond Burbank”.  This section features examples of not only Tim Burton’s art, but work by collaborators Colleen Atwood, Stan Winston, puppet craftsmen Ian Mackinnon and Peter Saunders, and the design studio of Carlos Grangel.  There are costumes, props, and puppets on loan from Disney, Warner Bros., and Fox, from Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, Corpse Bride, and Mars Attacks, among others.  For fans of movie memorabilia, this will be their favorite section.  There is a whole section on the bottom floor with a display of 29 large polaroids Burton created (just for kicks, apparently…) between 1992 and 1999.  There is also a collection of movie posters in the theatre lobby galleries.  A reindeer topiary stands in the sculpture garden, as an ode to “Edward Scissorhands”.  Throughout the exhibit there are also 7 brand new pieces Burton created just for this show.  


There are definitely moments throughout the show where whether you’re a lover of fine art, a fan of Tim Burton, or just a movie lover, your jaw will drop.  It is so much fun!  


For me the best part of it is the way the show makes most everyone feel connected to the art by their memories of seeing one of the movies it represents.  I know this feeling is evoked often in my gallery when a visitor sees a Bugs Bunny sketch, or a cel from Snow White, or a painting created to make Star Wars.  Kids come in and see, sometimes for the first time, that art can be a very personal thing, connected to something they understand or remember from their childhood.  Tim Burton’s art does that, whether it is expressing to you his long love of classic horror movies, teenage alienation, or some movie of his you’ve seen expressed for the very first time in a story sketch or character study.  If art is meant to inspire and evoke a feeling, the Tim Burton show succeeds mightily!  The whole show reminds me of the scene in Nightmare Before Christmas where Jack is trying to explain Christmas to the folks of Halloweentown.  Tim Burton seems to be trying to help explain a completely different and beautiful world.  He seems happily determined to explain his  different way of looking at life to a world that can’t see it without his help, all through his art…


I’m left with a strange mix of joy gratitude pride and resentment, because I’ve been showing animation art, and art by Tim Burton, and from Nightmare Before Christmas, for 22 years now. I heard some visitors i encountered on the first member preview day–the same type of folks who until very recently would come into my gallery, look around, and announce, “oh.  you sell children’s art.  Are there any real galleries in this shopping center?”  are now being overheard while examining a Tim Burton original sketch for Nightmare Before Christmas saying “oh. I see the influence of the German expressionist filmmakers…”  oye.  or yea.  


There are two new exhibits,  “Dreams Come True” at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and the Tim Burton show at MOMA happening at the same time this year, after very little representation of film and animation art in museum shows.  The Tim Burton show is the first ever one man show of film and illustration art at MOMA.   I hope this signals a greater acceptance by the art community to welcome what i call “stepchild art”, art not cool enough to be outsider, not traditional enough to be accepted, into the many artistic genres long embraced as “real art” by the art critics and art snobs of the world.  I also hope, as i am an eternal optimist, that in the near future some teacher somewhere will recall one of these shows and think of the artistic genius a teacher long ago allowed to blossom in Tim Burton, and support the quirky nontraditional art of some budding artist.  Who knows who’s future MOMA show we might be attending as a result?


In the meantime, celebrate your own appreciation of individuality and unique vision.  Do yourself a favor and scurry your eight monster legs or your striped socks on up to NYC to see Tim Burton at MOMA.  Your eyes and your hearts will thank you!
 TimBurton tunnel


 here’s me at the entrance, with all my press info. into the belly of the beast!   sweet! 







this is the piece in the corner of the dark room.  Tim has always been a sucker for all things carnival… 


 topiary burton


 Here is the topiary in the sculpture garden.  Just in time for the holidays!






 Teen goths everywhere would no doubt faint at the sight of this awesome doodle spectacular.  Our favorite director’s mind made ink! 





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