Morton Bartlett (1909-1992) is an artist’s outsider artist. His photographs have been admired by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and Mike Kelley. Think of them as film stills, or yearbook photos, in which the figures are dolls sculpted, painted, and dressed by the artist.
One of the smallest, most powerful museum shows in Los Angeles currently is “Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett” at LACMA. It features a dozen posthumous color prints (donated to the museum in recent years by L.A. collector Barry Sloane), as well as several black-and-white prints and documents that provide clues to the Bartlett puzzle.
Bartlett was a Boston graphic artist and photographer. In 1936 he began creating a series of half-size polychrome “dolls”/sculptures of children, mostly girls. He photographed them in clothes he made for them. A few photographs are nude, revealing that the dolls have genitals.
Bartlett never exhibited his photographs (or the dolls) in his lifetime. He did publish them, once, in the unlikely pages of Yankee magazine. A 1962 feature, “The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett,” reproduced nine of his photographs of dolls in ethnic costumes.
The other key text of the Bartlett canon is a status update he wrote for a 1957 Harvard alumni publication. “My hobby is sculpting in plaster,” said Bartlett. “Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies—to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”
There are few biographical facts about Bartlett but many theories. The three most popular are:
(1) Bartlett was a sublimated pedophile, like Lewis Carroll and Henry Darger are presumed to have been.
(2) Bartlett, being an orphan, sought to recreate the family he never had. It’s said that the boy dolls resemble him as a child.
(3) Commercial artist Bartlett aspired to be a “serious” artist. The dolls and photos were a personal project he intend to exhibit one day (but didn’t). Bartlett’s doll project might show awareness of Hans Bellmer’s dolls and the staged color photography of Paul Outerbridge.
These theories are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Barlett’s recent fame in the outsider art community has elicited some new information. One woman came forward to report that her mother was engaged to Bartlett (who never married).
Most intriguingly, Bartlett’s longtime friend Jean Gilbran spoke with critic Ken Johnson. ”He used to come with us to art openings” Gilbran said. “He knew all about art and artists—he couldn’t have been an outsider. He was a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him.”
As to the dolls: “He wanted to get a toy company to manufacture them. He thought they could become big sellers like the Barbie doll.”
A Barbie with a vagina? It’s worth remembering that Barbie was considered pretty radical back in 1959—for having breasts. Had Ruth Handler died before getting Mattel off the ground, leaving behind prototypes for a super-sexualized teenager and a genital-free boyfriend, maybe the outsider art market would have “theories” about her.
Bartlett was discovered, after his death, by Connecticut dealer Marion Harris. She bought a cache of small black-and-white photographs and the dolls themselves. Harris introduced Bartlett to the art world at New York’s 1995 Outsider Art Fair.
Later, L.A. real estate agent Barry Sloane found and bought a set of 17 of Barton’s color slides on eBay.
“I remember Mike Kelley saying that the color was extraordinary,” said Sloane, “and asking me how anyone was going to know how great Morton Bartlett was in color if the images weren’t bigger.”
Sloane made editioned color prints of the slides, large but not too large. In recent gallery showings these color prints have upstaged the much smaller B&W ones Bartlett printed.
The color prints raise two questions. The less interesting one is “are they authentic?” There is no evidence that Bartlett ever intended the slides to be enlarged. In this regard they bear comparison to the posthumous bronzes after Degas’ wax sculptures.
The more interesting question is, “What if an artist’s best work is ‘inauthentic’?” This isn’t an issue with Degas. It is most likely to be with outsiders, or quasi-outsiders like Bartlett. A better parallel is E.J. Bellocq’s negatives of New Orleans prostitutes, discovered and printed by Lee Friedlander. These are accepted as too important to sweat the authenticity.
There is the separate matter of whether the dolls or the photographs are to be considered Bartlett’s main achievement. Note that Bartlett himself described his “hobby” as sculpting, not photography. The dolls have been exhibited in gallery shows, and the American Folk Art Museum acquired one in 1998. My sense is that Bartlett’s vision comes together most completely in the photographs, where he controls pose, lighting, and camera angle. It is the photos that seem especially contemporary.
Bartlett’s friend Gilbran said that she never saw a child model in Bartlett’s studio. Apparently, though, Bartlett did photograph children as part of his commercial work. “Playthings” has a model release and several such photos. Furthermore, a black-and-white photo of a girl reading Grimm’s fairy tales was clearly a point of reference for one of the color photo of a girl reading Reader’s Digest.
(Below is a work not in the show but in LACMA’s collection. It’s a B&W image that Sloane printed in 2006. For the c. 1955 negative, Bartlett assembled his repertory company in front of a cyclorama.)