As we approach the midpoint of the five-month Tim Burton exhibition (November 22, 2009–April 26, 2010), I am reflecting on what may be our visitors’ first impressions of the show. Hopefully those who came to MoMA familiar with Tim’s films—whether they know him as the director responsible for cult favorite Edward Scissorhands (1990), the imaginative and innovative creator of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), the mischievous mind behind the irreverent Mars Attacks! (1996), or the filmmaker who brought the tale of tonsorial terror that is Sweeney Todd (2007) to the big screen—were pleasantly surprised to find another Tim Burton on display alongside the anticipated props and storyboards. Approximately 70 percent of the works in the exhibition had never been published or shown in public, and it is these works—projects both personal and professional, realized on paper and canvas, or via installations and sculptures—that give visitors a view of Tim as illustrator, cartoonist, photographer, and writer of verse, among other creative roles. These diverse works are united by their intimate, subjective nature; each conveys Tim’s distinctive way of viewing his world and the characters who populate it. The revelation of the private art of Tim Burton to MoMA’s visitors may be similar to my own personal revelation during our first meeting with Tim at his studio in London almost two years ago….
We walked down a quiet residential street in search of Tim’s studio, passing through an archway entwined with ivy before arriving at the door of an old English house. After rapping on the quaint brass knocker (the only means of announcing our presence), we awaited our admittance. For the first time in person, following months of correspondence, we met with Tim’s staff, feeling a familiarity peculiar to a first meeting, and they led us upstairs to Tim’s office, where we were to meet with our artist and discuss the exhibition in earnest after months of proposals and brief encounters. Now, I must point out, for those who do not know, that Tim Burton is a man filled with energy and exuberance—when he speaks, his enthusiasm for his topics commands the room and his company without fail. But during this initial discussion, I’ll admit I was thoroughly distracted and found myself quite preoccupied. It seems that the one thing that can distract me from Tim himself is his art, in particular a painting that hung in one lone corner of his office.
In order to properly convey this significant moment, allow me to digress and divulge a bit of back story. Years of research and open collaborators had prepared us for what we might discover in Tim’s personal archive, but what we knew was but an inkling of what existed. A one-and-a-half-inch binder filled with photocopies of “Burton Art Found in Public Sources” that we had brought along for reference (our wish list) was but a mere fraction—say, 1/30—of what we found in Tim’s archive in London. Imagine our delight.
Therefore, seeing The Last of Its Kind (1994), which depicts a creature with the unfortunate distinction of the painting’s title—merely three circles on spindly legs, unimposing and relegated to the corner of a composition utilizing a simple color palette of grays and red, yet evoking grand emotions of persecution, loneliness, and longing, a recurring theme in most of Tim’s films—was more monumental than just the work itself. It was a representative moment. Encountering this previously unknown art for the first time, we recognized the magnitude of our endeavor, of having the responsibility and privilege of bringing such immensely private art to the mammoth public arena that is The Museum of Modern Art. When visitors step through the doors into the main gallery of the exhibition, The Last of Its Kind is, fittingly, one of the first paintings they see. I wonder if the profound effect it had on me during my first viewing is repeated with each new visitor to the exhibition. Being the last of its kind isn’t perhaps such a bad thing after all.