Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 20, 2015
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Playthings: The Uncanny Art of Morton Bartlett Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2015.
Exhibition schedule: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, August 30, 2014–January 31, 2015
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Morton Bartlett. Girl with Bouquet (1955, printed 2006). Chromogenic print. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Barry Sloane. © The Bartlett Project LLC.

“My name is Talky Tina . . . and I’m going to kill you.” In 1963, Morton Bartlett, a freelance commercial photographer based in Boston, carefully disassembled and packed up the dolls of children he had painstakingly made over the previous twenty-eight years. He wrapped these painted plaster creations in newspaper along with the assorted outfits and undergarments he had designed and tailored for them, interring everything in wooden crates in a locked cabinet in his home. There they remained, consigned to darkness for decades, together with numerous graphite drawings of children and hundreds of photographs of his creations staged in various theatrical scenarios, occasionally against painted backdrops. In November of the same year, The Twilight Zone aired its “Living Doll” episode, which starred the vengeful, vocal Talky Tina doll, who was patterned after the then-popular Chatty Cathy toy but came with added skills in psychological terror and murderous intent. The temptation to imagine that this broadcast played a part in Bartlett’s decision to set aside his private playthings for good is certainly unfounded, but almost too attractive to resist.

“My name is Erich Streator, and I’m going to get rid of you.” Talky Tina gave form to the childhood fantasy of the doll as protector, a talisman that empowers the vulnerable against the threats and confusion of the adult world. In the episode, Tina’s voice mediates the child’s deepest wish to be rid of a cruel, vindictive stepfather and to reclaim her mother’s affections for herself alone. At the same time, the doll functions as a wholly other kind of surrogate for the stepfather, a reminder of the missing child he is too impotent to father—both a symptom and catalyst for his rage. If Erich cannot give life, surely, he believes, he can destroy it, as he attempts, by turns, to bury, suffocate, crush, incinerate, and decapitate the doll who simply refuses to die. Tina’s physicality is impervious to violence—her neck deflects and dulls the blade of a table saw, her head flexes easily with the cinch of a vice—and yet she is also weirdly pneumatic, capable of disappearing into thin air as she magically transports, first to the bed of the child and then to the stairs, where she lies in homicidal wait for her adversary. Who might Bartlett have identified with in this scenario—child or stepfather? We know little of his biography; he was orphaned at the age of eight, and it is frequently suggested that his dolls served as a kind of “surrogate family.”1 Perhaps these transitional objects helped him cope with the trauma of losing his parents, much like Tina serves as a defiant retort to the overwhelming lack voiced by Erich when he shouts “I’m not your Daddy!” at his stepchild. And yet, Bartlett’s pictures of the dolls suggest that he relished his role as progenitor, one who could immaculately conceive the siblings he had been denied, animate them within the simulated world of the photographic image, and, ultimately, snatch away their lives at whim.

“My name is Talky Tina, and you’ll be sorry!” Of the dolls discovered after Bartlett’s death in 1992, twelve are girls and three are boys who may be self-portraits of the artist at the age when he lost his parents. A baby’s head was also found, though it is unclear whether Bartlett intended to give it a body. Bartlett carefully studied anatomy textbooks and growth charts as he made his creations, which he realized at precisely half the life-size of average children at the threshold of puberty. Since these materials were brought to light, Bartlett’s meditations on immature bodies have been marketed and exhibited as examples of “outsider art” akin to the obsessive albums of Henry Darger. It strikes me, however, that Bartlett’s and Darger’s visual and narrative sensibilities actually have little common. By all accounts, Bartlett was a quiet and solitary man who felt his sculptural activity was a hobby for his own private gratification. In the intimate and intense exhibition of Bartlett’s work curated by Ryan Linkof at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the dolls were represented exclusively through the artist’s photographs. The one-room exhibition consisted of thirteen prints and a vitrine containing a small selection of archival materials. Every picture appeared to take the unguarded sexuality of children as its theme. Girls lift their skirts, lick their lips, and sit and stand with their legs astride and their arms akimbo. One cries in torment, clutching her abdomen with a hand raised to her cheek; her face is shiny with tears as if she has just submitted to some corporeal punishment. Another internalizes and mimics the dominant position of a disciplining adult, berating her stuffed animals into submission. Yet for the most part, the girls smile sweetly and a boy giggles with glee as they direct their eyes obliquely to someone in the indeterminate space just beyond the frame. Their perky innocence is not for us, but we get to watch its magic at work, unheeded, just the same. The images put us in the position of the voyeur who would not dream of disturbing the subjects’ absorption, whether they are reading, practicing ballet, or flirting avant la lettre. Bartlett’s penchant for strong spotlights and for doubling, even trebling his dolls’ forms with shadows suggests that we are frequently witness to the moments just before an encounter, rather than its discomfiting aftermath. In particular, the children who appear most eager to please seem on the brink of being overwhelmed, cornered, and outnumbered by these uncanny specters within spaces devoid of much other detail. The scenes are dreamlike condensations in which all signs of pleasure are preemptively tinged with pain yet to come.

“Talky Tina, a doll that does everything, a lifelike creation of plastic and springs and a painted smile.” Bartlett originally developed the photographs featured in the LACMA show as color slides in 1955; the twelve gorgeously saturated chromogenic prints were enlarged by the collector Barry Sloane in 2006 and are now in the museum’s permanent collection. In fact, the only surviving prints of the dolls that Bartlett made himself are in black and white, keyed with expressionist high contrast. A single loan to the show, supplied by Sloane, provided an example of these prints, a small work (3.75 × 2.75 inches) that appeared miniaturized and doll-like compared to the color images. The color prints were thereby freed to suggest something of the scale (if not the luminosity) of slide projection within the exhibition. Indeed, I could imagine Bartlett, alone with his dolls in a darkened room, manipulating a cartridge of his slides to conjure life from the juvenile mannequins. The transparencies cast on the walls around him would have made the dolls’ bodies appear even more incorporeal and unreal than they do in the prints, yet all the more “alive” for their highly charged Kodachrome color. While attempts have been made to give Bartlett’s work an art-historical pedigree within the legacy of Surrealism (through comparisons with the work of Hans Bellmer or Cindy Sherman, for instance), the key insight to be gleaned from this exhibition was instead about color and its nonidentity. The prints on view subtly insisted that the color of the painted plaster puppets is in no way equivalent to the color of the developed film, which contributes, however unconsciously, to the strange, unnerving effect on the viewer. The uncanny polychromy and simulation of real hair and teeth in statuary, which the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder famously found so repulsive, signifies the base materialism of the body, refusing the aesthetic distance so vital for the art lover. For Herder, the wet drapery featured on the pallid forms of classical sculpture visualizes a tactility that has to remain unconsummated in actuality, prolonging the erotic frisson that characterizes the sensory encounter with the beloved object. The only acceptable surface is one that we might fantasize about touching in the dark, blindly groping and gliding our way over a body we long to be “ours.” Breaking the taboo against touching has to be simultaneously pictured and infinitely deferred for aesthetic pleasure to be experienced. Color, insofar as it cannot be touched (indeed, cannot even be imagined to be touched), refuses to indulge vision in its desire to transform itself into haptic gratification. It is too close, too literal, and therefore, in this vein of sculptural aesthetics, an abomination. Bartlett’s dolls, modeled with obsessive anatomical accuracy and fitted with wigs and miniature dentures, seem to need photography in order to reassert this distance, this space of fantasy, play, and unrequited love, where their lives can be imagined rather than acted upon.

“My name is Talky Tina, and you better be nice to me.” Color, unlike contour, evades indexical transcription in the photograph. And so, what was supplemental and corporeal for the sculptural body dissimulates into something quite different the minute we attempt to conjure it anew through the chemistry of the darkroom. Figured in color, the doll becomes an untrustworthy mediator; just as the photograph can never replicate the color we perceive, so too does the doll exceed the control and the needs of her maker, taking on a life, perhaps even a will of her own within the image. Around the time that Bartlett retired his dolls, he began to cultivate a professional practice as a portrait photographer specializing in children, and the exhibition also included examples of this work from his archive. Bartlett’s camera, which had so effectively breathed life into this Pygmalion’s miniature Galateas, now seemed to crave the real thing. Had his dolls outlived their role as intercessors and surrogates? Could the photographic image alone assume this function instead? We will never know why Bartlett gave up his dolls, but these last words uttered by Talky Tina at the end of The Twilight Zone episode—this time, directed to the mother—remind us what might have been at stake. Throughout the triangular family drama, viewers are privy to Tina’s ability to dissemble—to behave as a sweet and loving companion to the child in front of her mother and to taunt the stepfather with his fear of being alone and unloved the moment the others are out of earshot. Once the doll murders him and the child’s wish is fulfilled, Tina sets her sights on replacing the mother as the sole love object. When the desire for compassion and kindness becomes a threat, it’s time to put away your toys.

Megan R. Luke
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California

1 Lee Kogan, “Morton Bartlett (1909–1992): Life Real and Imagined,” in Morton Bartlett: Secret Universe III, eds., Udo Kittelmann and Claudia Dichter (Cologne: Walther König, 2012), 27. Details about the fabrication of the dolls and the scant information about Bartlett’s biography come from this book, which is a catalogue of an exhibition held at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Berlin. The other monograph dedicated to Bartlett’s work was edited and privately published by Marion Harris, the dealer who purchased the artist’s body of work shortly after his death: Family Found: The Lifetime Obsession of Morton Bartlett (1994; repr., New York: Marion Harris, 2002). See also Ryan Linkof, “Hello, Dollies!,” Unframed (blog), November 12, 2014, http://unframed.lacma.org/2014/11/12/hello-dollies.

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