Quay Brothers, film still from “The Comb [From the Museum of Sleep]” (1990) (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art and the filmmakers unless otherwise noted)

Stephen and Timothy Quay became filmmakers entirely by accident. As Stephen recounted during the remarks that concluded the press preview for the artists’ retrospective, which opens tomorrow at the Museum of Modern Art, they were on their way to Amsterdam to take jobs as illustrators when fate intervened in the form of a schoolmate, Keith Griffiths.

Griffiths, who is now their longtime producer, prevailed upon them to submit an application to the British Film Institute for a grant in experimental filmmaking, despite their demurral that they “don’t make experimental films.”

They got the grant anyway, and then went on to figure out the art of animation for themselves.

They have also figured out the art of retrospectives for themselves. Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets, as the exhibition is called, is the first full-dress survey of the Quays’ encyclopedic output, organized by Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi of MoMA’s Department of Film in collaboration with the artists.

Squeezed inside the second-floor Michael H. Dunn Exhibition Gallery, the first part of the show unfolds in a theatrical, mazelike layout. It includes a ghostly montage of the Quays’ film clips, along with family photos, self-portraits, juvenilia and wide swaths of precious MoMA wall space awarded to works by artists whom the brothers count among their major influences.

(Dormitorium, the second part of the exhibition, is a collection of diorama-like film sets which I wrote about in 2009 when it arrived at the Kellen Gallery of Parsons, the New School for Design, in an exhibition curated by Edward Waisnis for the artists’ alma mater, the former Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. It’s a couple of floors below part one, in the Titus Theater Galleries — don’t miss it.)

The first major influence was Rudolf Freund (1915-1969), described in the wall text as an “illustrator and naturalist … [r]enowned for his covers for Scientific American magazine and his art for Time Life publications.”

Quay Brothers, film still from “Street of Crocodiles” (1986)

Freund lived in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, which is a 15-minute drive from the house the Quays’ father built by himself for the family in Fairview Village (not far from their birthplace in Norristown). The brothers would visit his studio often (it was surely not lost on the Quays — and perhaps it played into their serendipitous worldview — that Freund is German for “friend”), where this profoundly influential friend “allowed them to observe him at his easel and to study what they have described as ‘the kingdom of animals and insects’”:

The twins have described watching Freund create the February 1969 Scientific American cover “Ecological Chemistry” as “one of those crucial revelatory moments when something painted was so powerfully tactile.”

Another “crucial revelatory moment” came when the Quays were in college and encountered the 1967 exhibition Polish Poster Art, which (again from the wall text):

… introduced the twins to the world of European opera, drama, and cinema that would draw them away from their roots in the rural United States. Polish avant-garde illustration is grotesque, surreal, lyrical, and witty, and it deals freely with its subjects; it is work with the courage to be strange and ambiguous.

It is also boldly schematic, the exact opposite of Freund’s keenly observed pictures, and the Quays’ ability to combine the two — to assimilate a sophisticated graphic sensibility with a highly stylized yet grittily detailed, handcrafted realism — is a defining formal achievement.

This fusion is at work throughout their films, in such sharply delineated, fastidiously rendered and — to cite the Quays on Freund — “powerfully tactile” solids and voids as the tricycle-riding Punchinello figure in This Unnameable Little Broom (aka The Epic of Gilgamesh) (1985); the skull-like doll’s head and the barren landscape dotted with molten trees in The Comb (1991); and the chiaroscuro fragmentation of the sets and puppets in Street of Crocodiles (1987).

The merging of illustration and poster art is also a key to what might be termed their art of abdication. The Quays grew up working class — their father was a machinist, their mother a homemaker — and they went to art school for job training in something they were good at, illustration.

In other words, the Quays, like Rudolf Freund and the Polish poster designers, are hands-on, workaday artists who cobble together a living by taking on whatever suitable jobs come their way. For the majority of their work, they use no assistants or outside collaborators. As Magliozzi, the curator, repeated several times during the preview’s remarks session, “It’s just the two of them.”

Quay Brothers, “Tailor’s Shop,” decor for the film “Street of Crocodiles” (1986). Wood, glass, plaster, and fabric, 35 7⁄16 × 26 × 30 5⁄16 inches (photo by Robert Barker, Cornell University)

While they are best known for their stop-motion puppet animations, most notably Street of Crocodiles, an adaptation of a story by Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer murdered by the Nazis in 1942, and the live-action feature Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life (1995), based on the novel Jakob von Gunten by Robert Walser, a German-speaking Swiss confined in his later years to a mental hospital, the brothers have been commissioned to create theater and opera sets, book jackets, posters, record albums, illustrations, dance films, music videos and TV commercials.

All of which are represented in the show. Although a wall text describes the artists’ commercial work as “what they call their ‘deal with the devil,’ allowing them to maintain the independence of their studio, Atlelier Koninck” (which, by the way, is named after a brand of Belgian beer), their TV spots for Chili’s and the Detroit Red Wings are displayed on a monitor nestled in between their designs for books by Louis-Ferdinand Celine and a concert poster advertising a performance of Handel’s Messiah — a bold stroke that underscores their career-long immersion in what are considered the minor arts.

I have described the Quays’ oeuvre as an art of abdication by way of recognizing its roots in, and fusion of, two antithetical forms of commercial art — postwar Polish poster design and scientific illustration — and its refreshing indifference to high-art imperatives.

When William Kentridge, another artist whose work bridges a range of forms, including drawing, animation, theater and opera, was awarded similar retrospective treatment at MoMA in 2010, I questioned the show’s heavy reliance on cultural predecessors such as Alfred Jarry, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Georges Méliès, Nicolai Gogol, and Dmitri Shostakovich:

Add to that list the artist’s overt or indirect channeling of Goya, Francis Bacon, Dziga Vertov, Picasso, Brecht, Daumier, Edward Hopper, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, and even Tim Rollins + K.O.S., and you end up with a scrim of references filtering your comprehension of Kentridge’s work … placing the artist’s sometimes intense and often melancholy imagery at an arm’s length.

Although MoMA has been loosening up in recent years, the Kentridge show appeared to extend the museum’s “reluctance to cut the umbilical cord to [its] modernist canon.”

The Quays retrospective, however, flicks the canon away without regret. By emphasizing the forms of art — commercial design and illustration — that people encounter every day, the brothers’ aesthetic, however idiosyncratic, remains embedded in real life, while Kentridge’s presents itself at an art-historical remove.

This was evident when I left the museum and immediately felt much more attuned to light and shadow, color, movement and the infinite oddities of human physiognomy.

Rather than gathering up high-culture references and moving to the next step through deconstruction or embellishment, the Quays stop the clock, literally and metaphorically.

Quay Brothers, “Watermark. Joseph Brodsky” (c. 1983). Collage, 11 x 7 3/4 inches (click to enlarge)

The animations — non-narratives resonating with pictorial and literary sources — feature objects that encapsulate their history in their dust-encrusted surfaces, and that spring to life by means the artists’ preternatural ability to understand what an isolated instant of movement will look like — a process based on the paradox that the more the clock is stopped, the more fluid the motion.

Arising as it does from literature and the utilitarian arts, the artists’ work also halts the historical march implied in the chronological and stylistic narrative of most museum collections, including MoMA’s. It neither seeks nor requires credentials from Paris of the 1910s or New York of the 1950s, or from Pop or Conceptualism or any other institutionally ratified mindset.

In perhaps the most telling juxtaposition of the show, the above-mentioned montage of film clips is projected against a wall that also holds in its center a prop clock from Institute Benjamenta made of wood, glass and metal. It is not just a stopped clock, but an inoperable one, worn and battered by time.

Diagonally across the room from the projections, which seem to encompass in rapid succession everything the Quays have committed so far to celluloid, is a black-and-white photomural of the one-year-old twins with their mother, installed behind real birch tree trunks and stands of densely intertwined branches.

The significance of this arrangement at the outset of the retrospective couldn’t be any more pronounced or touching, encircling the artists’ lifework, their childhood, their mother and an ancient, stopped clock.

These artifacts suggest where the Quay Brothers return for renewal and reinvention — alighting upon the clock that stopped when their childhood ended in Pennsylvania, tapping out crucial revelatory, powerfully tactile moments of wonder and horror, absurdity and dread, on its silent gearwheels.

Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets opens August 12 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) and continues through January 7, 2013.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.

One reply on “Stopping Time: The Quay Brothers at MoMA”

  1. Visited this during members preview on Fri and went back for more on Saturday. The comparison to the Kentridge exhibit is spot on and the quiet genius of these two brothers is a refreshing departure from the hype and spectacle of the Burton or Abramovic exhibits. Not to diminish either of those, but the Quay’s strength is in its honest modesty.

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