The Alchemist of Prauge (set design for The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer [84]; source)

There are comparable, but never equivalent, online substitutes for the magical word-of-mouth transactions that happen in small, independent bookstores and record shops. In these spaces, the easily accessible thing that you’re into can lead to other, greater things—with an acutely attuned clerk behind the counter, even the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can lead to The Slits; Gravitation can lead to Black Hole. Museums ostensibly should serve a similar function, though periodization and art-market canonization often get in the way. The Museum of Modern Art in New York has made assorted attempts to vary from its modernist preoccupations, notably with one of its most successful exhibits, the 2010 Tim Burton retrospective. Now, as a follow-up—and hopefully a tantalizing invitation to the Hot Topic-ers who showed up in droves for that other pop rot—comes an immersive, holistic look at the work of the Quay Brothers.

(top source; bottom source)

Organized by Ron Magliozzi (who also handled the Burton extravaganza), the labyrinthine second-floor exhibition was designed by the Quays themselves, and features ephemera alongside their graphic design, advertising, theater, puppetry, and film work. Some of the non-Quay generated materials on display are clear antecedents of the team’s visual language: short films by Walerian Borowczyk (looped on monitors), drawings by George Grosz, a selection of Polish movie posters that were part of a 1967 Philadelphia College of Art Exhibition. Other items, however, are jarring reminders of the outside world: a mid-Eighties copy of Radical Illustrators magazine with a feature on the Quays, hung at eye level, is the first thing you see as you turn a corner—and looks nothing like anything else in the room. As a prelude to the work by these experts at creating worlds, the opening space of the exhibition (which contains a blown-up photo of the Quays as toddlers with their mother in rural Pennsylvania amidst fake birch trees) simultaneously primes you for disjunctions and signals that there will be no simple chronological recitation of their accomplishments.

The Calligrapher puppet (top source; bottom source)

Unlike the Burton retrospective, the more intricate objects featured in their films (in addition to being manufactured by the Quays themselves, and not the Warner Bros. prop department) are installed in boxes that allow for 360-degree views. Most of the boxes that recreate tableaus from their films, equipped with strategically placed holes or magnifying glasses, are in the lobbies outside the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters, where all 45 of their film and video works will be screened. Films receiving this deluxe treatment range from This Unnamable Little Broom (87) to The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (05) to Street of Crocodiles (87), which gets two boxes. But one of the most memorable examples is the boxed exhibit for The Calligrapher, a commissioned (and rejected) BBC2 station-identification bump (91)—a 60-second spot that already uses space like a boxed tableau. In the upstairs exhibition, other boxes showcasing individual puppets are recessed into walls, allowing them to simultaneously exist within two different periods or mediums of the Quay’s work. Isolating the image from the idea, the terrifying level of their craft is driven home: you can really see how fine the hair is on the ears of the rabbit from Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? (94)

Stille Nacht II: Are We Still Married? puppet, front and back (source)

The duality in the Quays’ work is also evident in the sequence of the exhibition. The Black Drawings, storyboard-like pieces from the early Seventies that reflect their move away from illustration and towards cinema, are placed alongside their later, fully realized stage-design work; before these lie the book covers they designed during that frustrating, transitory time. This kind of psychologically motivated organization, which sometimes plays into chronology and other times refuses it, is also apparent in how projections are worked into the whole. To the consternation of completists or newbies, the total runtime of the projections is over four hours, and the Quays’ most famous work, Street of Crocodiles, is in a small theater at the very end of the exhibit. Thus, though MoMA can boast the first major retrospective of their work—i.e., neatly catalogued and put on tangible display—the impossibility of consuming it all in one go flies in the face of the concept of a museum. The Quays have not offered up a buffet at which you can gorge yourself but rather a plate too large to eat—and there’s no way you can take it home with you.