Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Games of Life" (on Morton Barlett) by Douglas Messerli

games of life

Morton Bartlett  Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett, Los Angeles County Museum of Art / I saw this show on October 22, 2014

Born in Chicago in 1902, Morton Bartlett became an orphan at the age of 8, and was shortly after adopted by a well-to-couple, the Warren Bartletts of Cohasset, Massachusetts. As a young man Bartlett attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University from 1928-1930, dropping out of the university due, apparently, to family financial reversals during the Great Depression.

     After his college years, Bartlett worked at several different jobs, including as a manager of a gas station, as a furniture salesman, and as a manufacturer of giftware, before settling into the career of a freelance graphic designer and photographer. His photographic career evidently involved children’s portraits. And reportedly, he often asked parents whether he might not keep a copy of the portraits for later use in his private art work.

     Few individuals apparently knew of that private hobby, which only came to light in 1993, when antiques dealer Marion Harris, attending a Pier antiques fair in New York, came upon a booth selling 15 realistic, half-life-size dolls, wrapped in old newspapers and stored in wooden boxes. Three of the dolls represented a boy of approximately 8 years of age (a figure resembling, according to old photographs, Bartlett himself). The other 12 figures were female dolls representing children between the ages of 8 and 16. Among the collection were also a number of carefully tailored clothes for the dolls and hundreds of professional-quality photographs of the dolls, theatrically lit and portrayed in semi-narrative situations, some of them unequivocally erotic.


     On a whim, Harris bought the entire collection, writing a book the following year titled Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Morton Bartlett, which argued that the anatomically accurate dolls represented a kind of surrogate family for the artist—who depicted them, sometimes in what might be described as group portraits, but mostly in everyday situations—replacing the family he had lost as a child at the same age as the male doll.

     Bartlett’s creations quickly caused a stir in the American Folk Art movement as well as with curators interested in outsider art. Others argued that Bartlett’s works suggested the Geppetto and Pinocchio tales of the lonely puppet-maker who longed for a son he recreated out of wood, paralleling myths of Pygmalion and other classic works.

     The fact that Bartlett remained a bachelor for his entire life added fire to the imaginations of art critics, as they attempted to explain Bartlett’s seeming obsession, which, the remnants of which, in about 1964, he suddenly put away into the newspaper-wrapped boxes never to take them up again, despite the fact that he lived until 1992.

     Although I admit that I have never read Harris’ intriguing-sounding study, there are several hints that her explanation for Bartlett’s creations are lacking. First of all, as Bartlett’s close friends Jean and Kahlil Gibran (Kahlil’s cousin being the famed Kahlil Gibran of the poetic work The Prophet), Bartlett was no “naïve outsider artist,” but, often photographing sculptures of art catalogs and regularly attending art openings, was knowledgeable about man aspects of art. Reportedly, Bartlett had also seen a show of Hans Bellmer’s surrealist “dolls.”

    The Gibrans argue, contrarily to Harris’ theories, that Bartlett was not at all secretive about his hobby, but openly talked about his plaster-casted figures as models for dolls which he hoped to sell to a toy company. He would carry the photographs with him, perhaps with the hope that he could intrigue any interested parties whom he might encounter in the possibilities for his new inventions.

     The Gibrans’ story, however, lacks some credence given the fact that two brothers, Bartlett’s former Harvard classmates, owned a major Boston toy company and might easily have steered him to contacts with Mattel and other major toy companies if he had asked. Despite working with him on catalogues during his doll-making period, argues Fred Sharf, “I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing anything about dolls. When his work surfaced in the world of folk art, I was flabbergasted.”

     Just looking at the photographs, a cache of new color ones having recently been uncovered by Los Angeles collector and gallerist Barry Sloane, it becomes quite apparent that if Bartlett were truly intending his dolls as toys for children, the photographs he made of them might have scared off almost any potential buyer.

Works by Morton Bartlett     Although the Gibrans also argue, seemingly with some unstated protectiveness concerning their friend—that Bartlettt was “a well-educated, well-rounded man, and there was nothing primitive or strange about him”—there is something quite obviously unusual about the photographs he created relating to his doll figures. Particularly if Bartlett was knowledgeable about the art world, it is no accident, surely, that observers of his work (including me, when first viewing them the other day) easily make connections with them and the paintings of Balthus, the complex narrative stories and drawings of Henry Darger, the doll-like manikins of Bellmer, and even the writings and photographs of Lewis Carroll.

    One might, as Boston Globe writer Kent Johnson has, describe Bartlett’s “Girl Crying” as a young 6-year-old with a “look of almost comical distress on her tear-stained face,” but that hardly explains the complex images of easel and drawings behind her or, more important, the position of her right hand near her pre-pubescent sexual organs. Has the missing “artist” attempted to or actually abused his young model? Has he inappropriately touched the child? A whole series of questions is set up through the hidden narrative of the images. If no specific answer is proffered, neither is any defense of the possibilities the artist has intentionally (or even unintentionally) hinted at.     If the lip-licking tease of the young girl demonstrates to some viewers “pure innocence,” so too is her apparent reaction to the apparently Greek landscape enough to arouse the suspicions of any slightly curious viewer and the lusts of those Humbert Humbert’s among us. If this child is “just a tease,” she is, surely, also a potential Lolita. As Bartlett himself provocatively stated in a brief autobiography of the 25th anniversary report of Harvard’s class of 1932 (which he had not been part of): “My hobby is sculpting in plaster. Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies—to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

     I do not really care whether these other “urges” may or may not have involved secret pedophilic tendencies in the artist’s psychological makeup. Besides, unless we discover letters, an unknown written narrative, or a journal of the artist, we shall never know the inner workings of Bartlett’s mind.

     Although most of the attention has been focused on Bartlett’s female figures, we might learn as much from his male depictions of what most have described kinds of self-portraiture as a boy. Certainly, the Huck Finn like playfulness and the cherubic innocence of these photographs and dolls may suggest that, at least in his representation of self, Bartlett was open to all the wonders of his apparently not-so-wonderful childhood. But we might recall that Huck Finn, given his provocative adventures as he traveled down river with Jim, was anything but innocent at voyage’s end, and, over the many decades since its first publication, Twain’s work has been analyzed from racial and sexual perspectives that imbue the character with far deeper significance. The young “Boy with Red Hat” may look like he’s simply waiting on the sidelines to join in a snowball fight or a skating party, but in his wide-mouthed and open-crotched readiness—despite no glimpse, as with the female counterparts, of undergarments—he presents himself as ready for whatever good and evil potentialities might face him. 
      Bartlett’s figures, I argue, seem to be less a kind of “family” than a series of young male and female surrogates (both sexes with whom, presumably, their creator might identify) of the artist facing and reacting to whatever life had to offer. And, in this way, they represented for him, and still do represent for us as viewers of Bartlett’s art, models of the dilemmas facing any young person, images of ourselves encountering the ever-changing and often alternating possibilities of our lives. If these are “toys,” they are not passive playthings, but are rather images of beings engaged in the larger potentially dangerous game of life.

Los Angeles, October 23, 2014

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