Even after more than 30 years of making art for a public eye, there’s an air of mystery surrounding the Quay Brothers. That’s partly due to the enigmatic disquietude of their most celebrated films, from stop-motion shorts such as 1986 Palme d’Or–nominated “Street of Crocodiles” to live-action features like 2005’s dark fairy tale The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes. It’s also due to the fact that the twins anonymously toil away, one frame at a time, in their secluded London studio. On Sunday 12, the Museum of Modern Art breaks down barriers protecting the duo’s privacy with the opening of “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets.” The show, inscrutably titled by the brothers, features more than 300 works—including handcrafted marionettes, sets, drawings, installations, animated and live-action films, commercials and music videos—spanning a half century.
“Going through articles from the ’80s, people thought they were Chinese or that Quay was maybe a Japanese name,” says Ronald Magliozzi, associate film curator at MoMA. “And that was part of [their] game—that people didn’t know who they were.” In conceiving the first career retrospective of the art and films of Stephen and Timothy Quay—all-American boys from Norristown, Pennsylvania—Magliozzi was challenged to honor these shadowy figures while also demystifying their obscure but influential output for a wider audience.
The Quays, 65, reached by e-mail in London, describe the show as an intriguing evocation of their work. “In a gallery situation there is the liberty to linger whereas in a film you simply can’t,” they write. “The measure of that loss of allusiveness is considerable.” Yet the migration of objects, such as puppets, from screen to gallery frees the brothers’ works from the context of a movie script and imparts these nightmarish-looking creatures with a new strangeness that’s open to the viewer’s interpretation.
The exhibition unfolds in a weird and winding labyrinth that takes you through the Quays’ evolution from budding artists to students at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia) in the ’60s, and from U.S.-based commercial illustrators in the ’70s to Europeanized filmmakers specializing in surrealistic hand-manipulated animation. There are plenty of left turns along the way, including an eerie design for a Blood, Sweat and Tears album cover and commercials for Fox Sports and Slurpees.
In the ’60s, the Quays got hooked on pre–World War II Polish poster art, and later experimental authors, such as Bruno Schulz (who wrote The Street of Crocodiles) and Robert Walser (whose Jakob von Gunten was the source of the brothers’ feature Institute Benjamenta). However, the MoMA show balances these works with the brothers’ more accessible and commercial sides. They’ve designed sets for dance, opera and theater productions, and collaborated with pop musicians like Michael Penn and Peter Gabriel (including animations for the latter’s classic music video “Sledgehammer”).
Their career trajectory reminds Magliozzi of MoMA’s 2009 Tim Burton blockbuster, which he curated. Both Burton and the Quays still practice stop-motion animation; both started out in Smalltown, USA, and ended up in England; and in a sense they operate on different ends of the same spectrum. While Burton’s pop sensibility borrows heavily from cult and goth influences, the Quays’ gothic bric-a-brac aesthetic has infiltrated the mainstream (witness early David Fincher, or the lazy-eyed baby doll in Toy Story 3).
The exhibition, and its screening series (Thu 9–Jan 7), is bound to bring greater attention to the Quays’ body of work, but the brothers insist they won’t change their elusive ways. explaining “MoMA offers something profoundly overwhelming and disconcerting but it isn’t going to disrupt our sensibility for being essentially reclusive.” And though they’ll be at MoMA for the opening this week, such exposure won’t prevent them from “returning back to London to a laboratory that is a square metre table and where blessedly no one is looking.”
SEE IT NOW! “Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,” Museum of Modern Art, 11 W 53rd St between Fifth and Sixth Aves (212-708-9400, moma.org). Times vary; $14–$25.