Tim Burton as great as Warhol, says MoMA in the lead up to its exhibition on the director

The curator of an exhibition which includes over 700 of the film-maker’s drawings, paintings, graphic works and photographs, believes Burton will come to be seen as one of the most influential artists of our time


It’s a muggy Manhattan day in late July, and Tim Burton is in town to meet the press. No, he’s not drumming up pre-release publicity for his new film “Alice in Wonderland”. Instead, Burton, wearing dark shades and a wryly humorous expression, and sporting his signature chaotic hairdo, is installed, rather incongruously, at the head of a conference table in the film department of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. He speaks in halting sentences, underlining his points with wild gesticulations. “I was never someone who talked a lot,” he says, reflecting on his childhood, when he first started making drawings. “It was actually very hard for me to speak, so early on, it was always easier for me to make a sketch, not so much for other people, but for myself, to just kind of work out ideas.”

Burton has been working out ideas in drawings for over 30 years now, and hundreds of them will go on display in a full-scale retrospective opening at MoMA on 22 November. While the museum will be screening all of Burton’s films, from his 1985 big screen breakthrough, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”, to the blockbuster “Batman” (1989) and the brooding musical “Sweeney Todd” (2007)—with some early and student efforts thrown in for good measure—this is not an exhibition of a film-maker, where visitors are herded past scripts and props and costumes and memorabilia and production documentation. Although there will be some props and costumes—notably the spiny Edward Scissorhands getup designed by the late Stan Winston from one of Burton’s drawings—don’t expect clusters of kids ogling the Batmobile; the Batmobile won’t be on show.

An important artist of our era

The MoMA exhibition is a display of Burton the capital-A artist, and the institution is giving over its third floor exhibition galleries to some 700 of Burton’s drawings, paintings, graphics, photographs and other non-film work, as well as its lobby to a specially commissioned sculptural installation. At the July press conference, Ron Magliozzi, assistant curator in MoMA’s film department, who has curated the show along with his colleagues, curatorial assistant Jenny He, and chief film curator Rajendra Roy, dropped the following bombshell: “I would…go so far as to suggest that in the end of all this, it may be that Tim will rival Warhol when it comes to output and international reputation in the various mediums of artistic expression.”

Film-makers, at least the auteurs among them, are artists, albeit ones who work in a highly collaborative medium; this is a point MoMA has been hammering home since the museum was founded some 70 years ago. But with Burton, it’s taking a new tack: most of the material here is not collaborative, and viewers are meant to take Burton’s output in other media as seriously as they do his work on celluloid. As Magliozzi puts it: “Instead of using the films to interpret the art, let’s use the art to interpret the films…The art is the most important thing; the films are secondary.”

Artistic education

Burton was trained as a fine artist. In 1976, after a troubled youth in Burbank, California, a suburb in the shadow of Hollywood studios that Burton has described as “the pit of hell”, he won a scholarship to study animation at CalArts, a school founded by Walt and Roy Disney. From there, he was ushered into Disney studios on the merits of an animated short, “Stalk of the Celery Monster”, the tale of a deranged dentist. While at CalArts, he’d stuck with his iconoclastic drawing style—a spidery line limning creatures that hardly conformed to human anatomy—despite obligatory life-drawing classes. When he got to Disney, he was assigned to the 1981 classic “The Fox and the Hound”, but produced drawings that, he says, “looked like roadkill” and were far from the cuddly animals Disney had in mind. (Disney did eventually fund Burton’s first proper animated short, “Vincent”, the story of a boy who wants to be horror movie star Vincent Price.) But to understand how MoMA has come to present Burton’s work in so comprehensive a format, it helps to understand the exhibition’s genesis.

How it happened

In 2005 MoMA hosted an exhibition devoted to the animated films of the studio Pixar. Despite critical griping in some quarters, it got a positive review from The New York Times and, with lines stretching around the block, it was a hit. After the show closed, Magliozzi, its curator, cast about for a new subject. He says he was watching Burton’s 2005 film “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” one night when the idea for an exhibition on the film-maker came to him. But he didn’t settle on presenting Burton as an artist until he had gained access to the director’s archives. “I was aware that he had done some work that wasn’t on the screen,” he says. “But I had no idea how much. Once we saw what he’d saved, we saw that we could go even further in blurring the distinction between a traditional cinema exhibition and other kinds of exhibitions a museum does.”

Burton employs a staff to catalogue and process his work, from paintings and photographs, down to every last doodle he’s done on a cocktail napkin. Those metal anti-littering plaques he did for the city of Burbank as a teenager, that were nailed to city garbage trucks? He pried them loose; he saved them all. And Burton isn’t the show’s only lender. A key set of sculptures, cartoonish drawings turned into clay and wire figurines by production designer and longtime collaborator Rick Heinrichs in the early 80s, were found in Heinrichs’s garage and restored by MoMA. And art wasn’t the only treasure found in the archives. There were also meticulous lists Burton made of the classic horror films that had inspired him. He gleaned more from horror movies, which he took solace in as a child and then took seriously as an adult, than he did from just about anything else. He credits Ray Harryhausen’s masterful stop-motion work, for instance in the skeleton battle in Don Chaffey’s 1963 “Jason and the Argonauts”, as an influence on his own stop-motion animation in films like “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein served as a template for Burton’s early film “Frankenweenie” (1984), where the monster in question is a dearly departed bull terrier, the doctor a grief-stricken boy and the setting a cookie-cutter suburb. “I didn’t grow up in a really academic or museum culture,” Burton says, adding that his “artistic references came from expressionist films and horror films that had a strong sense of design”. Among other influences he lists James Bond set designer Ken Adam and horror movie director, screenwriter and cinematographer Mario Bava. As for his drawings, children’s writer Dr Seuss, Burton says, “was the kind of artistic inspiration that taught me to want to draw”. Given his penchant for horror, it’s not surprising that Burton owns a painting by Basil Gogos, the illustrator renowned for the iconic portraits of movie monsters such as Frankenstein, Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon that he did for the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in the 1960s and 70s. Burton’s taste as a collector seems to run to what some might call kitsch. He says he commissioned a canvas by the popular painter of big-eyed waifs, Margaret Keane, a Bible-belt-born Jehovah’s Witness whose work has found favour with stars like Joan Crawford (who had her portrait done by Keane). Aside from that, Burton says he owns “a lot of photographs” and a small drawing by Arthur Rackham, who, around the turn of the last century, memorably illustrated Alice in Wonderland and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Burton has expressed admiration for Matisse, and for Van Gogh’s landscapes, and he’s nodded to Francis Bacon, but in general, “he’s shy about endorsing any comparison to serious artists, that is, to artists who work outside of film,” says Magliozzi. That put the curator in a tough spot. “I needed to defend some of the context,” he says. “So I thought of him as a pop surrealist” alongside artists like Gary Panter and Mark Ryden, who developed their offbeat, cartoony work in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and who incorporated into their art everything from monster movies to psychedelia to tattoo parlour culture. This isn’t just curatorial mumbo-jumbo designed to justify the presence of Burton’s work in an art museum. Magliozzi spotted books on the pop surrealists in Burton’s apartment, and he says there are also overt connections.

Burton’s interest in childhood, and in big-eyed characters, for example, is similar to that of Ryden. Then there’s “Hansel and Gretel”, a film Burton made for the Disney Channel in 1983, that MoMA has unearthed. A zany adaption of the Grimm tale featuring an all-Japanese cast, a witch with a candy cane nose played by a man in drag, a cookie that demands “finish me!” and a house that, when punctured, oozes goo—“hard to imagine that on the Disney Channel,” Burton quipped at MoMA, after a clip was played. “I think they showed it once at 3am on Halloween Night.” Magliozzi puts the short film in the context of what he calls pop surrealist performance art, like the freewheeling shows by Oingo Boingo, the pop group headed up by Danny Elfman, who went on to do the jaunty, carnivalesque soundtracks for many a Burton film, starting with “Pee Wee”. Burton’s resistance to discussing his work in a fine art context doesn’t mean he hasn’t shown it—and sold it—in one. He’s had several gallery exhibitions. Thomas Solomon, a Los Angeles art dealer and son of the late, legendary Soho collector and dealer (and Warhol pal) Holly Solomon, did a show of Burton’s large-scale, unique Polaroid photographs in 1994. Burton had flown a large format camera out to the desert to take pictures, many of them of his then-girlfriend, Lisa Marie, in various creepy and outlandish getups. The one on the show’s announcement card depicts her with purple hair, and what appear to be wires sprouting from her mouth; it is included in MoMA’s show. Solomon, who says he bought photos from the exhibition for his own collection (from the back room, he was also selling Burton drawings, some of which he also owns), sold them at the time for $5,000 to $7,000. The opening was packed. “I’ve always seen Tim as an artist,” says Solomon. “An artist who makes really interesting drawings and photographs and fantastic films, who fleshes out the subject matter that interests him in all these mediums. But the art world has always been sort of suspicious of people who are very well known in one world crossing over and making visual art.” That hasn’t stopped Burton, who has perhaps been pushed in this direction by planning for the MoMA show, from exploring the artistic dimensions of his career. In July, a new feature, the Tim Burton Art Gallery, sprang up on Burton’s official website. Visitors use a character called Stainboy as an avatar to navigate a museum-like space featuring Burton’s drawings and paintings as well as a teaser for a book to be published by Burton and his staff this autumn, The Art of Tim Burton, a 430-page tome packed with over 1,000 illustrations; a deluxe edition, priced at $299.99 will come with a signed and numbered Burton lithograph in an edition of 1,000. As for MoMA’s “Tim Burton” exhibition it will doubtless draw Pixar-style crowds but it may also draw Pixar-style criticism. One of New York Sun art critic Lance Esplund’s objections to the Pixar show was that it closed just before the latest Pixar feature, “Cars”, opened in cinemas, and hence served as free advertisement. Burton’s latest effort, the highly anticipated “Alice in Wonderland”, opens on 5 March with his art still on MoMA’s walls. But the argument that a famous director like Burton would feel much effect in the way of free advertisement from an art museum seems pretty tendentious; in actuality, MoMA, which is honouring Burton at its annual film benefit on 17 November, and which is instituting, in conjunction with the Burton show, a new variable pricing scheme, where visitors can pay $75 to be part of a special after hours VIP tour and get preferred seats at screenings, stands to gain more from dovetailing with the Alice release than Burton does. And as for Burton himself? He’s a little nervous. On the eve of his big MoMA adventure, the director, who says he’s loathe to watch his own films once they’ve been released, admits that it’s all “hard for me to fathom, truthfully, because it’s so outside my experience, or culture. When they asked me about it, I couldn’t quite believe it. You feel quite vulnerable when you show a movie, and this is even stranger. In a movie, things go by quickly. Like a moving target. This is like—oh, gee. It’s like, I’m a bit disturbed, really.”

o “Tim Burton” is at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from 22 November to 26 April 2010.