Published: November 21, 2017
Unusual. That is the word that can describe the collection and mantra of antiques and contemporary self-taught artist dealer Marion Harris. Her offerings invite more questions than they dare answer, creating an aura of curiosity and layered significance that pushes the artists she represents into a category all their own. Ahead of “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” a major exhibition opening at the National Gallery of Art on January 28, we asked Harris to talk about the day she discovered Morton Bartlett’s work, as well as what other things we can expect from her at the 2018 Outsider Art Fair, January 18-21 at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.
Tell us the story of how you found Morton Bartlett’s work.
As remarkable as the Morton Bartlett discovery has turned out to be, it was made in an ordinary way. Bartlett’s work was at the Triple Pier Show in 1993, exhibited by Bruce Emond, The Village Braider. This was the first time I wasn’t actually exhibiting at the Pier Show, and without the opportunity of shopping at setup, I felt no urgency in being early.
So instead, my husband and I had a long relaxing breakfast, arriving well after the show started, not expecting to find anything to buy.
The Bartlett works had been on display all during setup, as well as the morning of the show, generating much controversy and interest, but no sales by the time we got there.
There were some assembled “dolls” on display, plus what seemed like multiple legs, arms and heads, as well as boxes and boxes of similar body parts. What was visible was captivating, eccentric, yet clearly accomplished. I have always related to dolls and mannequins and sensed there had to be a story and perhaps even more interesting things in the boxes. Emond explained, as I think he had endlessly since setup began, that it was the estate of a man in Boston who made dolls but not much else was known.
I made a decision to buy the entire booth without really knowing the extent of my purchase. Immediately, and with obvious relief, a sign went up saying “Booth Sold Out.”
What is it that drew you to Bartlett’s work? What little things about him are you still discovering?
It took a year for us to assemble what would be 15 doll sculptures, several interchangeable heads along with handmade clothes and wigs, all in handmade wooden boxes, wrapped in fading 1963 issues of The Boston Globe, untouched since that time. In separate boxes, there were also more than 200 realistic photographs of the dolls meticulously dressed and posed in staged scenarios, at once quotidian and dramatic, creating a visual fiction of childhood; a young girl comfortably reading, practicing ballet or playing with her stuffed toy dog.
We researched Bartlett’s history, gleaning details from his lifelong estate lawyer, doctor, neighbors and the Harvard Year Book of 1932, discovering that he made the photographs himself and carried them with him; they were a fantasy family.
Importantly, and an added key to his story, we established that it seemed as if he made the dolls and clothes only in order to photograph them.
Was it hard building the Bartlett market? When did you know you had succeeded?
We produced a 60-page catalog called Family Found, now available on Amazon. And a short film showing this process with the same title can be seen on YouTube.
The first exhibit was at Sandy Smith’s Fall Folk Art Show, shortly followed by the Outsider Fair in 1995. The interest and press response was huge, almost overwhelming… and so was criticism of the unusual and controversial work.
Sales were alarmingly slow, although we sold out of Family Found catalogs!
Disappointed but undaunted, because we believed in the quality and originality of the work, we reprinted the catalog and spent the next five years strategically introducing his work to collectors and museums. Interest grew slowly and the turning point was when the Metropolitan Museum bought the work for its permanent collection in 2000.
Coupled with press interest, the Met purchase transformed the visibility and credibility of Bartlett’s work. Now, it is mainly in private or museum collections and there is a waiting list for when they very occasionally come back on the secondary market. Vintage photographs are almost equally rare. In order to meet the continuing demand, we produced a limited edition of ten of the most popular images in 2010.
Since then, Morton Bartlett’s work has been in several major exhibits internationally, including the Venice Biennale in 2013. He is considered iconic in the Outsider art field.
He’s included in an upcoming exhibition, yes?
His work will be included in an upcoming show curated by Lynne Cooke: “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” opening in January at the National Gallery Of Art in Washington, DC. A catalog studying the interface between mainstream and self-taught art in the Twentieth Century will accompany the show.
What can we expect from you at the Outsider Art Fair?
In addition to showing Morton Bartlett works, we will be featuring the work of Canadian Outsider artist Jordan MacLachlan with a site-specific booth showcasing 100 ceramic sculptures from her “Unexpected Subway Living” series.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm