Finding Burton

Tim Burton. Untitled (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories). 1998. Pen and ink and watercolor on paper, overall: 11 x 14" (27.9 x 35.6 cm). Private collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

We found Tim Burton in London. Just as was the case with the Museum’s Pixar exhibition in 2005, we discovered that he, too, held a body of work that had never before been seen by the public. In Tim’s case, there was childhood ephemera, high school papers, cartoons, early 8mm and 16mm amateur films, sketchbooks, drawings, verse, art for a number of unrealized film and book projects, work related to well-known feature films, and material cut from his 1997 book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy. Keeping things new and fresh would not be a major concern, and we recognized that we would be relying less on studio archives than we had originally expected. The obvious issues were what to select from a personal archive that contained close to 10,000 elements, and how to make sense of it all.

One of the most frequently asked questions over the course of our Burton exhibition (five months and counting!) has been to what degree Tim collaborated with us in shaping the presentation of his work. This is how it started: We made our in-person pitch to Tim in his London office at 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, June 18, 2008. Tim pulled a chair from behind his desk so that he could sit within several feet of us, face to face. (His assistants sat in a corner of the room listening.) In my notebook, I wrote “blue shirt, black pants…easy-going…leaning forward… fidgets with enthusiasm….” We described to him our hopes to mount an exhibition suited to an art museum rather than a museum of the moving image. The Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Alfred H. Barr, declared in 1929 that film was the modern art unique to the twentieth century, and it deserved a place in a museum of the “modern.” In other words, folks who came to MoMA to see Monet and Picasso should also be exposed to Georges Méliès, Alfred Hitchcock, and Stan Brakhage; just as visitors to Tim Burton should also have the opportunity to experience the Bauhaus, Gabriel Orozco, and William Kentridge. We discussed a Burton show that highlighted the full range of mediums he worked in, not just his films. We proposed identifying and tracing his major themes and motifs, whereupon he insisted that we take on those tasks without any input from him. He responded enthusiastically to our ideas for an environmental entry to our Burton show and a black light room. After about an hour we were done. One of the last questions he asked us was where we were staying. When we replied, he suggested vigorously that we move to a less picturesque but better managed hotel.

Tim Burton. Three Creatures. 2009. Steel, burlap, epoxy, polyester resin, paint, and rigid foam, 94 x 48 x 48" (238.8 x 121.9 x 121.9 cm); 84 x 48 x 37" (213.4 x 121.9 x 94 cm); 34 x 39 x 21" (86.4 x 99.1 x 53.3 cm). Private collection. © 2009 Tim Burton. Photo: Jason Mandella

After that first session with Tim, we went right to work in another room of his studio while he got back to preproduction on his adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. As nearly all of the earlier, small-scale exhibitions of his work through the years had been linked to the release of his latest films, it was agreed that MoMA’s show would be about Burton the artist and not a promotion for Alice. (Only two small examples of art from Alice in Wonderland are included in our exhibition.) Eventually, we spent over two full weeks in Tim’s archives over the course of two visits to London and one to Los Angeles, where a small part of his collection was still held.

Organizing what hasn’t previously been exhibited can be challenging in unexpected ways, especially for an artist who creates work for the cinema and not the gallery. Often very basic facts are not recorded. For a drawing, painting, or sculptural piece, for example, what are its precise measurements? What is its medium (pencil, marker, pastels, acrylic, mixed media)? In what year was it created, and for what project? For an amateur film, when was it made? How long does it run, is it complete, what gauge is it, who’s in it? We worked with Tim’s longtime assistant and two archivists who served us box after box of art and notebooks and took us on a tour of Burton’s home in case we might discover something there worthy of exhibition. At the time, they were working on the book The Art of Tim Burton (published in November 2009), and in collaboration with them we searched for answers to an endless and ongoing series of questions. For me this privileged, intimate experience of Tim’s work was the most gratifying and rewarding phase of the work we did on the exhibition. In early 2009, our initial checklist contained approximately 520 pieces. Tim suggested that we consider about forty more (a number of which we hadn’t seen before) and we ended up borrowing 550 pieces—not counting the other 225 pieces we digitized for display in slideshows on three monitors.

Getting this much work into a gallery in a coherent, attractive way would be our next significant challenge.