Whitehot Magazine

September 2009, Tim Burton @ MoMA

Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories). 1998.
Pen and ink, watercolor on paper Overall: 11 x 14" (27.9 x 35.6 cm) Private collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

Preview: Tim Burton at the Museum of Modern Art

Since the early 1990s, Tim Burton has enchanted audiences with phantasmagoric movies such as Edward Scissorhands (1990,) Mars Attacks! (1996,) Corpse Bride (2005,) and Big Fish (2003). Burton’s use of elaborate stage-sets, costumes and eccentric characters bears little resemblance, if any, to reality and instead finds success within the creative imaginations of the movie-going populace. While entertainment has always been a staple of contemporary leisure life, Burton’s films dig deep and return viewers back to their own childhood vulnerabilities. However unlike the standard script found in fairytales, Burton veers away from connecting symbol and metaphor to specific gender roles and ultimately locates meaning within the mystery of androgyny.  

On November 22nd, the Museum of Modern Art will open an extensive exhibition that will capture Tim Burton’s 27-year career as conceptualist, film-maker, and artist. Bringing together a collection of over 700 rarely-seen drawings, paintings, photographs, storyboards, moving-image works, puppets, maquettes, costumes and cinematic ephemera, MoMA’s six-month exhibition titled Tim Burton seeks to unveil a layered, tactile creative process that begins on the surface of an empty piece of paper and gradually morphs to life in cinematic film.

Burton’s youth was a balancing act between the fiction playing out at nearby film studios and a personal curiosity that centered around a cemetery, located a short distance from his family home. The artist’s interest in the marginal, off-beat and horrific first appeared in a 1982 production of the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Hansel and Gretel. Designed as a short for the Disney Channel, Burton’s focus was on live-action as opposed to animation since his goal was to isolate the eerie disconnect that saturates most children’s stories. 

The spontaneous gestures that appeared in this particular segment of acting also surfaced in much of his subsequent preparatory work that emerged, in his view, directly from a private, real feeling rather than an intellectual one. Untitled (Vincent) (1982) is a drawing that depicts a tiny, vulnerable figure standing in front of his larger-than-life, monster-like shadow. Burton’s use of irony to elicit the side of an individual’s personality, that normally goes unseen, underscores the crux of his work. A series of untitled drawings from The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (1991) similarly reflects an array of fears about the world.

However in his ideas for feature-length film, the anti-hero is transformed into hero. Edward Scissorhands, for instance, finds true love after living a significant part of his life as lonely, due to a spectacular deformity. Likewise, Batman momentarily vanquishes the bombastic Joker, and Pee-Wee Herman uses his nerdy personality as the power of pursuasion to climb through America’s postmodern, backbiting social ladder. Although Tim Burton has been compared to Andy Warhol, his work has evolved in a vacuum without a significant interest in art. Burbank was also a suburb that had neither an artistic nor museum culture, yet it was fodder for Burton’s creativity, offering a way for him to create an avenue that moved away from the daily monotony. 

The trick of contemporary art is appealing to the general public while remaining above the fray of conspicuous consumption. Despite the fact that Burton’s first museum visit took place at Hollywood’s Wax Museum, his work can easily be categorized as fine art through the sheer quality of randomness, especially when combined with the director’s own personal habit of not analyzing previous projects. From drawing to maquette to costumes and film, the most visually interesting aspect of Burton’s work emerges from the spontaneity that appears on screen. Confused and flattered by the MoMA’s artistic interest in his art, Burton stated: “People in my position either go to jail or meet success.” On November 17th, Tim Burton will be the honoree of the Museum of Modern Art’s 2009 Film Benefit. His movies will play concurrent to the duration of the Tim Burton exhibition.


Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) Directed by Tim Burton and Mike Johnson Shown: Co-director Tim Burton on the set Photo credit: Derek Frey;


Sleepy Hollow (1999) Directed by Tim Burton Shown: Johnny Depp Credit: Paramount Pictures / Photofest © Paramount Pictures;

Big Fish (2003) Directed by Tim Burton Shown: Ewan McGregor (as Edward Bloom) Photo credit: Columbia Pictures;

















Tim Burton. (American, b. 1958) Untitled (Edward Scissorhands). 1990. Pen and ink, and pencil on paper, 14 1/4 x 9" (36.2 x 22.9 cm). Private Collection. © 2009 Tim Burton

Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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