In the midst of the crowded galleries devoted to filmmaker and artist Tim Burton, surrounded by adults still stuffed inside their winter coats and besieged by their young children, I inadvertently became another object of curiosity. Not that I resemble any of Burton's creatures. No, when the guards kept shouting "No pictures!" to those who thought they could sneak in a cellphone picture of a Batman cap or a drawing of a Ghost Dog or a statue of Johnny Depp as Edward Scissorhands, I simply pulled out a small notebook and started sketching. This act of a lady sketching the small models of Burton's balloon-headed, big-eyed creatures seem to excite the youngest museum attendees, and one or two offered favorable remarks for my efforts. Their parents, on the other hand, seemed less engaged with my activity, perhaps thinking the medium a form of juvenilia or a province of weirdo artists. Kids totally get it.
And then looking up from my drawing, I realized Tim Burton was just like a kid who always loved to draw but managed somehow to defy the unimaginative school system's kill-joy insistence on putting down the pencil. He kept doing it anyway. (Creative writers fare much better in keeping the flame alive, with only graduate school killing off their natural talents.) Drawing and painting as a bored adolescent in Burbank, California, Burton continued in adulthood to make drawings as an aide to mental development and simply as a way to amuse himself. Sketching became a private means to communicate with a larger public, a way to wave off the demands of the larger culture to make him "normal." This is a man, after all, who says in MoMA's online exhibition video that wearing striped socks makes him feel better and that he totally identifies with Charlton Heston's character in The Omega Man (1971). Subsequently attending CalArts and then working as an unhappy apprentice at Disney goes far in explaining everything.
Most know Burton, of course, as the director of imaginative movies such as Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, and more. His work is a dark whimsy, often colorful, hysterical and macabre at the same time. MoMA is screening the films in the theaters downstairs as well as showing in the galleries little-known off-beat efforts like Hansel and Gretel (1983), a project supported by Disney. His upcoming film, Alice in Wonderland, due to be released in March and produced by Walt Disney Pictures, takes place years after the novel and revolves around the heroine reconnecting with the place she has forgotten. The theme is perfectly suited to someone who managed not only to remember but sustain a long childhood. Furthermore, living in London with companion Helena Bonham Carter, the grown Burton may continue to enjoy more culturally sanctioned eccentricity. Despite being a Burbank native, he just doesn't seem like a Hollywood guy.
The works on display at MoMA, especially the drawings, look like a lifelong uninterrupted desire to escape the confines of normality. Dark creatures are your friends. The maturity displayed in later works, however, does not necessarily reflect a more refined talent but perhaps more the professionalization of the artist. Burton, like many successful professional artists, has the command of people to help him realize his ideas. The exhibition makes some effort to group Burton with the West Coast school of painters, given his interest in popular culture, but that seems a little forced. Surveying the many charming monsters and freaks sprung from his imagination, Burton seems more kin to gothic illustrators like Charles Addams and Edward Gorey or to German Expressionist stage designers of the 1920s than he does to surfing artist dudes of the West Coast.
Tim Burton continues at MoMA (11 W. 53rd St.) through April 26, 2010. The exhibit is popular and space is limited so the museum suggests the purchase of timed tickets on weekdays. Timed tickets are required on the weekends. Members of the museum can breeze on in. No photography. But bring a sketchbook. MoMA's interactive site here.
Image and sketches by Walking Off the Big Apple.