On Saturday night I was lucky enough to attend the grand opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s new Tim Burton exhibit, which is slightly expanded from the show that originated at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009—and drew record-breaking attendance. More than one person who saw it at MoMA told me that LACMA’s exhibit was less cramped and therefore easier to enjoy. It also features a handful of pieces, including a living sculpture, that didn’t appear in New York. The expansive gallery show, featuring more than 700 pieces, will be in residence through Halloween, and even if you’re not a Burton fanatic, it’s well worth seeing.
As my wife and I snaked through the display, room by room, we ran into a number of animation stalwarts like Bill and Sue Kroyer and Mike Gabriel, who attended Cal Arts with Burton and/or worked with him in his early years at Disney. They proudly pointed themselves out on a video monitor showing his first short films like Luau, from 1982. John Musker, co-director of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, noted that an entire wall of early Burton drawings were—
—done on Disney animation paper (which used registration peg-holes unlike any other studio’s).
The exhibit was curated by an old colleague and friend from MoMA, Ron Magliozzi, in collaboration with Jenny He. Some months ago Ron told me about a discovery he’d made too late to include in the New York exhibit: Burton’s first attempt at stop-motion animation, done as a high-school art project and saved all these years by his teacher, Doris Adams. She has very clear memories of her onetime student, as you can see in a video interview posted on LACMA’s website.
What I find most intriguing about following Burton’s artistic growth from boyhood through adolescence and young adulthood is how soon he developed his own “voice,” and how many drawings reflect ideas that later bore fruit in his movies.
It’s also fun to see his youthful efforts at stop-motion animation, which so many kids of his (and my) generation attempted in the futile hope of achieving something resembling King Kong or the work of Ray Harryhausen. No wonder Burton has remained loyal to—and fascinated by—this labor-intensive medium in such films as The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Corpse Bride: it’s been a lifelong fascination.
At the LACMA show you’ll see oodles of drawings and paintings, metal sculptures, dioramas, maquettes (mostly fashioned by his longtime friend and collaborator Rick Heinrichs), movie costumes and props (even the angora sweater from Ed Wood!), films and videos (which play continuously on wall screens) and some special installations that almost defy description. You’ll also see some topiary inspired by Edward Scissorhands on the LACMA grounds. And the Museum is playing his films in repertory for the next few weeks. (He was interviewed briefly by LACMA’s film programmer Ian Birnie before a showing of Ed Wood on Saturday night.)
And when you finish wending your way through the eye-popping exhibition halls, you’ll wind up in…a Tim Burton gift shop! The Museum hasn’t missed an opportunity to find or create appealing art reproductions and merchandise, some (but not all) of which is also available in its online store.
Whether or not you share his offbeat sensibilities, you cannot deny Tim Burton’s distinctive point of view and boundless imagination. There aren’t many contemporary filmmakers, in live-action or animation, who deserve a museum show quite like this.