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Morton Bartlett

American, 20th century.
Born 1909, Chicago, Illinois; died 1992, Boston, Massachusetts.


In 1957, Morton Bartlett, writing in the 25th anniversary report of Harvard’s class of 1932, referred to his private hobby as an outlet for urges that do not find expression in other channels.What those urges were, we can only speculate, but the products of that hobby have resonated strongly with viewers since they were discovered at an antiques show in 1993.

Bartlett, who had never married and lived alone, had constructed a family of fifteen anatomically correct dolls, all children: three young boys and twelve prepubescent or physically-developing girls. He then photographed them in varied poses or tableaux, either in clothes he had made or occasionally, in the case of the girls, nude. The dolls are a third to half life size, modeled first in clay, then cast in plaster. Having had no training in art, Bartlett assiduously studied anatomy texts to perfect his creations, then learned to sew, embroider, and knit to clothe them, and finally took up photography to capture the moments of the lives he imagined for them. The well-composed and studiously lit photographs are emotionally charged, alternately sweetly sentimental, poignant, or humorous, and, at times, darkly, even erotically suggestive. They seem to reveal a terribly naked longing that can be unsettling to the viewer, who has gained uninvited access into what appears to be a lonely realm of desire and projection.

Bartlett only immersed himself in this realm during the middle years of his life, from age twenty-seven through fifty-four. Having been orphaned and adopted at age eight, he was given good educational opportunities by his new family - schooling at Phillips Exeter Academy followed by two years at Harvard. During the depression and after WWII, Bartlett shifted among a variety of jobs, settling eventually into a career as a freelance graphic designer. He shared knowledge of his hobby with a few neighbors and close friends, and even pondered their commercial possibilities if mass marketed, but never acted. The dolls received public notice only once, in 1962, in a friend’s article about them in Yankee Magazine. But a year later, when Bartlett was forced to move from the apartment in which they had been created, the dolls, photographs, and slides were carefully packed in crates, stored, and possibly not opened until Bartlett’s death nearly thirty years later.

- Charles Russell


Selected Exhibitions

2017, Known/Unknown: Private Obsession and Hidden Desire in Outsider Art, Museum of Sex, New York

2016, The Photography Show, Park Avenue Armory, New York

2015, Grand Illusions: Staged Photography from the MET Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

2015, System and Vision, David Zwirner Gallery, New York

2014, Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

2014, Morton Bartlett, Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne

2013, The Alternative Guide to the Universe, Hayward Gallery, London

2013, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice

2013, Morton Bartlett, The Horse Hospital, London

2012, Secret Universe III, Hamburger Banhof, Museum der Gegenwart, Berlin, jointly with Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne

2012, Read Into My Black Holes, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

2010, The Museum of Everything, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin

2007, The Sweethearts of Mr. Bartlett, Julie Saul Gallery, New York

2005, Mixed-up Childhood, Auckland Art Gallery, Australia

2000, Morton Bartlett, Galerie Susanne Zander, Cologne

Selected Collections

American Folk Art Museum, New York
Collection de l'Art Brut, Lausanne
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco

Selected Bibliography

Kittelmann, Udo, ed., Morton Bartlett: Secret Universe III, Walther Konig, Köln, 2012.

The Museum of Everything, exhibition catalogue, Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, Turin/Milan, 2010.

Smith, Roberta, "Doll, You Oughta Be in Pictures," The New York Times, August 8, 2007.

Johnson, Ken, "The Man Who Played With Dolls," The Boston Globe, July 29, 2007.

Simmons, Laurie, "Guys and Dolls -  The Life and Works of Morton Bartlett," ArtForum, September 2003. 

Saltz, Jerry, "Substitute for Love," Village Voice, May 2000.

Kogan, Lee, "The Secret Children of Morton Bartlett," Raw Vision, No. 16, Fall 1996.

Harris, Marion, Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Self-Taught Artist Morton Bartlett, Marion Harris, 1994.

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