SACRED MONSTERS: Tim Burton And Charles Addams Take Manhattan

    "Growing up in Burbank," writes Tim Burton in the catalog which accompanies Tim Burton, a retrospective of the artist-director's work at the Museum of Modern Art  "there wasn't much of a museum culture. I never visited one until I was a teenager...Later when I did start frequenting museums, I was struck by how similar the vibe was to the cemetery." With Burton's name on the marquee and the animated throngs of museum-goers at MOMA mirroring the heat and fervor of attendees at Comic Con on opening night, it is safe to say that the museum-as-cemetery analogy doesn't quite work here. The Burton retrospective harnesses and refracts the audience's energy and becomes an authentic, multi-media, immersive pop-culture event.

     The retrospective, which runs through April 26, was curated by Ron Magliozzi, an assistant curator in MOMA's Department of Film, Jenny He, also a curatorial assistant in the Department of Film with Rajendra Roy, MOMA's Chief Curator of Film. MOMA has, rather brilliantly and since 1940, provided strategic institutional support for a number of exhibitions about animated art and film including 2005's Pixar: 20 years of Animation, That's Not All Folks! Warner Bros. Animation (1985-86) and Designing Magic - Disney Animation Art (1995). 

     The Burton exhibition documents in exhaustive fashion, the filmmaker's creative trajectory, from his earliest pencil renderings as a trapped adolescent desperate to escape sunny Burbank, to ephemera from his most recent cinematic work Alice in Wonderland. Burton may yet be his best archivist, no scrap of paper seems to have been thrown away in forty-plus years. His work in the third floor gallery, arranged in roughly chronological order, is enlivened by a mix of ink and pencil sketches, oil and acrylic paintings, photographs, storyboards and maquettes, as well as animated and live-action shorts including Burton's internet-based animated series The World of Stainboy.   A deer-shaped topiary from 1990's Edward Scissorhands and recreated for the occasion, frolics in the sculpture garden.


Untitled (Trick or Treat). 1980. Ink, marker, collage elements and colored pencil on paperboard, 15x15'' (38.1x38.1 cm). Private collection. Courtesy MOMA.

     While Burton's primitive, youthful doodles jostle with more accomplished later-in-life work for wall and floor space, the most poignant piece is The Giant Zlig (1976), an unpublished yet assured illustrated manuscript for a children's book flanked by an 18-year old Burton's handwritten query to Walt Disney about possible publication. The query produced a warm, lengthy critique (also on exhibit here) from Jeannette Kroger, a Disney Studio editor, an unimaginable response in today's publishing world.

     One of the challenges facing the curators surely must have been the disinterring of celebrity detritus from creative products which could plausibly be called art. They've accomplished this with some dexterous sleight-of-hand, adding several excellent, lush, color-saturated Burton paintings and Polaroids from closely-held private collections.


Blue Girl with Wine. c. 1997. Oil on Canvas, 28x22'" (71.1x55.9 cm). Private collection. Courtesy MOMA.


Untitled (Blue Girl with Skull). c. 1992-99. Polaroid, 33x22'' (83.8x55.9cm). Private collection. Courtesy MOMA.

      Material which is more readily available and in the public domain such as the latex Batman cowl from 1992's Burton-directed Batman Returns is also on display - so that's what happened to the Caped Crusader. The spectral Edward Scissorhands costume which hangs dramatically from the rafters coaxes involuntary gasps of recognition from even those determined to resist Burton's considerable pop-cultural charms.


Untitled (Edward Scissorhands) 1990. Ink on Paper, 8x5'' (20.3x12.7 cm). Private collection. Courtesy MOMA.


Edward Scissorhands (1990) Directed by Tim Burton. Shown: Johnny Depp (as Edward Scissorhands). Photographer: Zade Rosenthal, Twentieth Century Fox/Photofest Courtesy MOMA.

A film series runs concurrently. Tim Burton and The Lurid Beauty of Monsters includes films which have inspired and influenced the director as well as the entire slate of Burton-directed films. Burton may spend much of his time in London now, but Burbank is still a company town and he is its undisputed mayor. He doesn't even have to check in.

     Uptown at the Museum of the City of New York Charles Addams's New York plays to large, if quietly appreciative crowds. The exhibition is curated by Sarah Henry, the museum's chief curator with the assistance of Kevin Miserocchi, the Executive Director of the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.  It contains dozens of Addams's cartoons and cover art for The New Yorker and other publications and is culled from private and other collections, the Addams Foundation and the City Museum of New York's extensive permanent collection of the cartoonist's work. 

      Also on display are preliminary sketches, unpublished drawings, personal items and most intriguingly, a styled approximation of what might be called the artist's lair. Addams's drafting easel with a sketch containing editorial emendations - Perhaps a bigger Mondrian? - his work bench and assorted drawing tools provide a welcome glimpse into the quotidian rigors of the artistic life. He worked as much as he could, utterly necessary for a man whose indulgences included a Bugatti - alas not on display here although his racing goggles and weathered racing cap are on view in a vitrine. The need to work at a furious, non-stop pace was also driven by the fact that while Addams was a prolific contributor to The New Yorker, he remained until his death in 1988, a freelancer there and thus subject to the whims of those on that publication's editorial masthead.

     Other work includes jacket art for Evelyn Waugh's novella The Loved One and Brendan Gill's Here at The New Yorker  as well as artwork for Diners Club and TV Guide. One TV Guide cover from October 30, 1965, asks with somber concern about Johnny Carson and his late-night challengers. The more things change.


Chartered Bus. Permission of The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

     Addams is perhaps best known for creating the characters known as The Addams Family. The judiciously-selected cartoons which feature the proto-Addams Family, and later iterations, when they are more fully realized characters and recognized as Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Fester et al. are uniformly superb. They are much more satisfying when viewed in real life than when shrunk into the lower quadrant of a magazine page. One early depiction of Morticia Addams - Morticia serving Armadillo - a lifesize, confidently sinuous oil done on window shade material while Addams was visiting friends in Florida has a particularly satisfying Shroud of Turin-esque feel.


 At the bottom of the steps, turn right. The meter is on the far wall. Permission of  The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

     Addams's work demonstrates not just fleeting topical humor but a pervasive, incisive intelligence which may explain his contemporary appeal. He understood the enduring romance and necessary, particular magic of the New York City nightscape. Necessary because grotesques always lurked around corners and all too often, just beneath urbane, polished surfaces.


Halloween Taxi. Permission of The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

      While he may be best known for the Addams Family characters, his other work anticipates a sophisticated, Siftonian Manhattan universe - Delmonico's please and hurry! - and he has served as a mordant chronicler of its storied (other-) worldly realms. Who can possibly forget Addams's depiction of a matron in a sumptuously-furnished study, standing over a freshly-dead spouse and dispassionately ordering Perkins the faithful retainer to call the family lawyer while she called Christie's? Or the unpublished 1984 sketch of a tonsured, sandaled monk clutching a burlap-wrapped manuscript while approaching the Quik Copy?

     Also on display are assorted toys from Addams's personal collection. These include a minotaur, a winged dragon, a reproduction of a medieval executioner's axe and a (surprised) stuffed armadillo from New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg inscribed To Charlie - Merry Christmas and a happy 1953. Addams actively cultivated elements of the macabre for public consumption, but as this exhibition shows, his innate talent exceeded any manufactured spectacle.

Tim Burton at MOMA runs until April 26th with extended museum hours beginning on April 22nd. Timed entry tickets for non-members are required for the rest of its run. Charles Addams's New York runs until June 8th. On April 15th at 6pm, the Museum of the City of New York hosts a screening and discussion of Lyda Ely's Funny Business. The director will be joined by a select group of New Yorker cartoonists featured in the film. Reservations are required. 212.534.1672.

Author's note - As a Geekweek reader, I imagine that you have an interest and innate understanding of shifts in the digital and entertainment ecosystems. If you are an emerging (or established) artist who works with new media or if your work includes web series, animation, comics designed explicitly for online viewing or if your artwork is created by experimenting with new digital tools, iPads, iPhones or even better, a technology which has not been mainstreamed and you would like your work to be reviewed in this space, I invite you to send a portfolio or link to your work. Send to [email protected] Please note before sending that I am deeply resistant to banalities and utterly bored by "transgressive" spectacle.



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