From Animated Features to Book Covers, The Dark Arts of the Brothers Quay Enchant at the MoMA

Detail of "They Think They’re Alone" — decor for the film "Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies," 1987
(Courtesy The Quay Brothers / Photograph by Robert Barker, Cornell University)

The first thing to greet visitors to the Museum of Modern Art’s new retrospective of auteur animators and filmmakers the Quay Brothers, a show of hundreds of objects and dozens of videos on the second floor, is a dark, moody scene. A few eerie birch trees run floor to ceiling in front of a black-and-white photograph reproduced on the gallery wall depicting a woman doing yard work and a pair of twin babies sitting in front of a New England house. The small boys are the young Quay Brothers themselves, and that gothic photo installation is just the start of a joint life story mingling nigh-mythic self-creation with restless creative adventuring through the worlds of graphic art, theatrical design, and film-making.

The Quay Brothers were born in 1947 in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and grew up in relative isolation. Their talent for drawing and painting, showcased in the array of juvenilia on display at MoMA, led them to study with the renowned local illustrator Rudolf Fruend, whose densely analytical, photorealistic drawings of flora and fauna inspired the twins’ own taste for taxidermy. There is a messy biological quality to the Quays’ drawings, a taste for the morbid that was intensified as the artists attended the Philadelphia College of Art and then London’s Royal College of Art, falling under the influence of 1960s surrealist Polish poster design, Kafka, and the melancholic aura of the Eastern European avant garde.

Though the exhibition’s drawings and commercial work, ranging from book covers to a spot for the BBC, are powerful, the true payoff comes in viewing the Quays’ original films and props. Dioramas are sprinkled throughout the galleries, tiny environments composed of found objects, crumbling doll furniture, and attenuated humanoid and insectoid figures made from wire, string, and bits of cloth. Waiting at the end of the show is a literal multiplex of theaters where viewers can take in reels of the brothers’ short and feature films. Their iconic “Street of Crocodiles,” the elegiac tale of a puppet cut loose from its strings, gets its own space. It’s hard not to stay for the full 20 minutes.

Click on the slide show for a photo tour of the Quay Brothers’ MoMA exhibition.

Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist's Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets” is open at the Museum of Modern Art from August 12, 2012 to January 7, 2013.