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By Alan Behr

NEW YORK, 27 JANUARY 2010 — I was lucky to get into the Tim Burton exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York during a holiday. I arrived early, got a ticket valid for entry not before 1:00, and by the time I’d figured out where to find the nearest Starbucks, all tickets for the day were sold out. Restricting access was prudent, because the exhibition was as crowded as a downtown club and purposely about as grim. American pop culture is about nothing if not optimism, but there is a contrarian riff, from Charles Addams to Gahan Wilson and beyond, that finds solace and amusement in the macabre. It's a vision in which every day is a brainy kid’s take on Halloween.

As a movie director, it was Burton who, in the 1989 film Batman, engineered the elevation of an alternative superhero to Superman into an iconic postmodern avenger — a comic book character rebuilt for a new generation. That may not be the kind of cinematic vision that MoMA ordinarily promotes, but Burton has maintained an art-world following. And it should be remembered that the people who run American fine-art museums may pledge allegiance in conversation to a higher cause than pop culture, but they envy its revenues; they are not above reaching out to the esthetic of the mass audience in order to enhance the bottom line and, just perhaps, expose a few of those raised on the clang of pop culture to the more demanding music of contemporary fine art.

Tim Burton: Blue Girl with Wine, 1997
Oil on canvas
22 x 28" (55.9 x 71.1 cm)
From a private collection
Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

The MoMA exhibition includes sculptural pieces, costumes and props, but the main works are Burton’s drawings, many dating from his days as a schoolboy in Burbank, California. Rooms that are so crowded that viewers stand two or three deep are not ideal places to view drawings, but Burton's works are very graphic and instantly accessible. You won’t need to hunch over them with a magnifying glass, as connoisseurs will do with Old Master drawings. One shows a couple that "like to hold hands" — and they are: they clasp severed hands in their own. In another, cupid shoots an arrow that staples two lovers together by impaling them straight through their heads; if they weren’t of one heart and mind before, they can’t possibly avoid it now.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Johnny Depp in a scene from Ed Wood, 1994, USA
Directed by Tim Burton
Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

Burton's esthetic is clearly a carry-over from youth, and a good number of the displayed works are juvenilia. One message from the exhibition could be that the macabre can be fun and even touched by pathos, but so resonant is the show of the effects of Mr. Burton’s own boyhood, the underlying message is more properly about the formative life of the American artist. The American public school system, with its glide-along standards of performance, accentuates the polarity of life inside the great experiment in democracy: the USA, despite its embrace of the midpoint in nearly all things, produces a population of highly varied accomplishments and standards of living. With its light schedule (even if you do the homework), and with adequacy too often a more than acceptable result, the American public school gives you the invaluable gift of free time. Most kids fritter it away on the amusements of youth, but a few use that time to develop as the entrepreneurs, artists, politicians and writers who will help define their generation. Mr. Burton, one of those boys who lived as an introverted, lonely misfit in a banal neighborhood, used his free time well, and he benefited from one unique advantage: his particular banal neighborhood had movie studios, and he was soon working for one (Disney). The rest, as they say, is art history.

Still fromTim Burton MoMA Spot, 2009
Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

The Burton exhibition opened as the Bauhaus 1919 –1933: Workshops for Modernity was winding down. The Bauhaus was not a style but a movement in architecture, design and photography — a German Modernist school (literally, with its own Modernist schoolhouse) that celebrated simplicity, utility and all those many forms that follow function. Faculty and students included Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Walter Gropius, Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and László Moholy-Nagy. Over four hundred Bauhaus-related objects were on display at MoMA, and as a historical survey, the exhibition was well done. It felt, however, like an archive, with only a few pieces of furniture able to give a hint of the visual power and the sometimes surprising comfort of life-sized Bauhaus design. But a movement is about a time, place, vision and no small amount of self-assurance and revolution, even if waged on drawing tables and in furniture factories, is hard to convey through artifacts populating museum galleries. The fine scholarship of the curators only served to bolster the feeling that this was an exhibition more suited to a library than a museum.

Erich Consemöller: Untitled (Woman [Lis Beyer or Ise Gropius]
in B3 club chair by Marcel Breuer wearing a mask by Oskar Schlemmer
and a dress in fabric designed by Beyer). c. 1926
Photo courtesy of MoMA

On the day of my visit, it became the show you saw if you couldn't get into the Burton exhibition — like the film you go to when you find the one that you want to see at the multiplex is sold out. But if even a few people who came to the museum in search of American pop culture came away challenged by avant-garde German art and design, it will have been a good day’s work for MoMA.

Tim Burton
26 April 2010
Museum of Modern Art (MOMA)
11 West 53 Street,
between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York, NY 10019-5497
Tel: (1) 212 708 94 00

Headline Photo: Tim Burton: Watercolor and pastel on paper
6 x 10" (15.2 x 25.4 cm)
From a private collection
Photo courtesy of Museum of Modern Art

Alan Behr is a partner in the New York office of Alston & Bird LLP. A regular contributor to Culturekiosque on fine art photography and Austro-German history and culture, Mr. Behr last wrote America in Black and White: The Americans Revisited.

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