The Quay Brothers may be underrecognized on this side of the Atlantic, but that could soon change with a full-dress retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, slated to open on August 12. Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, identical twins Stephen and Timothy Quay, 65, have lived in London since matriculating at the Royal College of Art in 1969. Their wide-ranging endeavors (which tend to be eerie and dark) include avant-garde film, stop-motion animation, book illustration, television commercials, sets for operas and plays, installation art, and works on paper.
The brothers’ most famous sequence may be the spooky “Day of the Dead” hospital scene from the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic Frida, but connoisseurs know them for short films like Street of Crocodiles (1986), In Absentia (2000), and the “Stille Nacht” series (1988–2008).
“They’re very private,” says Ron Magliozzi, the organizer of the show and associate curator in the department of film at MoMA. “They cultivated obscurity in a sense by covering up the earlier part of their career. We’ve spent a lot of time opening up their archives and rediscovering a detailed record of objects”—including a Blood Sweat & Tears album cover from 1969, designed while the Quays were still students. They also illustrated stories on cattle mutilation for Playboy and Oui. “The TV commercials, such as those for Coke and Fox Sports, are quite amazing,” adds Magliozzi, who cites their bizarre ballet films The Sandman and Duet (both 2000) as “particularly impressive.”
The curator compares the Quay Brothers to artist William Kentridge and filmmaker Tim Burton “in the way they move from live-action to stop-motion.” All told, the museum is bringing together some 35 shorts, feature-length films, and music videos, as well as a selection of “dormitoriums,” miniature sets built for their stop-motion work.
Magliozzi says the Quays settled in England because they “fell in love with the country and felt closer to the art and culture than in the U.S. They always claim that animation in this country is Disney-based and made for children, while in Europe it’s much more directed at an adult audience.”
The title of the show, “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets,” is a typically Quay Brothers choice. “They always talk about accident and discrepancy being a part of the way they make films, so although they are doing narrative films, they often need to be deciphered,” Magliozzi explains. “Their puppets never speak. They’re always silent.”