The Museum of Modern Art has blown the lid off Tim Burton’s best-kept secret: he isn’t just an imaginative filmmaker; he’s also an amazingly talented artist. Burton’s retrospective, which is spread throughout the museum, focuses on the director’s 14 feature films, while also offering drawings, paintings, photographs, sketchbooks, props, and short films that have never previously been exhibited. Spanning a lifetime of creativity — from his teenage drawings and college films to character sketches from his upcoming Alice in Wonderland movie — Burton’s Gothic vision is as captivating as it is astounding.
Hundreds of magical works are exhibited salon-style in MoMA’s third-floor special-exhibitions gallery, which is entered by way of a three-dimensional monster’s mouth. The creature’s red-carpet tongue takes visitors down a black-and-white striped hallway, which displays flat-screen monitors playing Burton’s six-episode Internet series The World of Stainboy. Passing through this metaphorical orifice, you come out in a darkened gallery, filled with Day-Glo paintings of freaky characters on velvet and a rotating carrousel sculpture illuminated by black lights. Beyond this trippy room, nearly 40 years of Burton’s surreal style of thinking unfolds.
The exhibition in the main gallery is divided into three sections that mark different periods of Burton’s career. “Surviving Burbank,” where Burton was born and spent his youthful years making lists of his favorite horror and sci-fi films, offers a children’s book that the artist wrote and illustrated; signs and posters he made for civic projects and film screenings; and short films made with neighborhood friends. “Beautifying Burbank” shows work from the period when Burton attended CalArts and worked as an animator at Walt Disney Studios, and includes a series of 50 dynamically drafted cartoons, as well as drawings and storyboards for unrealized film projects and a live-action adaptation of Hansel and Gretel that only got one airing on cable TV.
Finally, “Beyond Burbank” tackles Burton’s rapid development after the success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s drawings and paintings, as well as collaborative costumes, models, and props bring the past 15 years to life as though the elements had just walked off the screen. There are also videos for bands and commercial advertisers shown alongside graphic art and toy-figurine projects. The whole expanse of Burton’s genius is on view, and not just in the normal places. For example, topiary of a deer from Edward Scissorhands has been recreated for the museum’s garden, and a series of macabre and comical large-scale Polaroids are displayed in the downstairs theater lobby, where they are accompanied by music composed by longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.
Taken as a whole, this crowd-pleasing show, which runs through April 26, provides insight into the mind of an uninhibited artist, while celebrating characters that have thrilled a generation of Goth-inspired youth.