Marla Olmstead made her first abstract painting while still in diapers, crouching on her parents' dining-room table. She was not yet 2. Her big break came when she was 3, and a family friend hung her paintings in a coffee shop in her hometown of Binghamton, N.Y. By the time she was 4, she was scarfing down cookies at the packed opening of her first solo gallery show. A local reporter covered the story, and the New York Times picked it up. Soon, news crews from all over were rushing to report on the adorable blond moppet and her colorful canvases, calling her a "budding Picasso," a "pint-sized Pollock." Within a few months, she sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings. And then, just short of her 5th birthday, the bubble burst. In February 2005, 60 Minutes aired a report by Charlie Rose implying that Marla's father, a night-shift manager at a Frito-Lay plant and an amateur painter himself, was guiding her compositions. Sales of the paintings quickly dried up, the family was barraged with hate mail, and the New York Post gleefully piled on the puns, reporting that "the juvenile Jackson Pollock may actually be a full-fledged Willem de Frauding."
In his new documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, director Amir Bar-Lev traces Marla's sensational rise and fall, focusing on the media feeding frenzy and on the Olmsteads' efforts to prove that Marla created her paintings unaided. Whatever the degree of parental coaching, Bar-Lev's footage reveals a child who clearly enjoys painting. We see her squeezing gobs of thick acrylic paint directly from the tube onto the canvas, smooshing it around with brushes, fingers, and spatulas, and using plastic squeeze bottles to add delicate squiggles and swirls. Yet, when Bar-Lev tries to film her creating a single work from start to finish, the camera-shy toddler grows silly and restless, and in one incriminating scene, begs her father to draw a smiley face on her picture. (He declines, grinning nervously.)
The possibility of fraud is the film's narrative engine, and Bar-Lev isn't shy about voicing his own doubts about the works' authenticity, or reflecting, a la Janet Malcolm, on the queasy blend of complicity and betrayal that typifies the relationship between journalist and subject. In one excruciating scene, Bar-Lev shares his misgivings about the paintings with Marla's mother, Laura, a dental technician. "I need you to believe me," she says, staring into the camera. The interview ends in tears.
All this makes for a fascinating story about stage parents, media hype, and the ethics of documentary filmmaking. But in focusing on Marla as a media and market phenomenon, the film gives short shrift to some of the more intriguing questions about what it means to look at a 4-year-old's splattery abstract canvases in the context of art. Marla's paintings, with their swirling colors and expressive brushstrokes, have been compared repeatedly to the work of modern masters like Kandinsky and Pollock. Does it matter that she has no knowledge of these artistic precedents, and most likely, no clear concept of "art" itself? Is Marla a prodigy or a primitive? Can a work of art transcend the intentions of its maker? If a child can make great abstract paintings, does this mean that modern art is itself a hoax, a high-culture con game?
Ten years ago, I traveled around Thailand with Russian conceptual artists Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, teaching domesticated elephants to hold brushes in their trunks and apply paint to canvas. The project was cheerfully satirical, but the elephants really did learn to paint, and their bold, gestural abstractions were strikingly similar to Marla's—and raised many of the same questions. Like Marla, elephants approach a blank canvas with a blithe lack of inhibition and no preconceived idea of what a painting is supposed to look like. What matters to them is the process: the friction of the brush against the surface of the canvas, the creamy viscosity of the paint, and the fine-motor activity involved in making different kinds of marks, from long sweeping strokes to quick rhythmic dabs and slithery caresses.
Of course, neither Marla nor the elephants would be painting without some degree of instruction, encouragement, and access to quality art supplies. For this, Marla, who is now 7 and still painting, has her father. He sets her up with large primed canvases (measuring up to 5 square feet), tubes of acrylic paint, and an array of brushes, spatulas, and squirt bottles filled with watered-down pigment. The elephants have their trainers, called mahouts, who essentially collaborate with them, choosing the colors, proffering paint-loaded brushes, and, most importantly, whisking away the paper or canvas before it devolves into a drab, muddy mess. I suspect that Marla's dad plays a similar role in her creative process. The enthusiasm and unbridled spontaneity of a child or an elephant wielding a paintbrush can be beautiful to behold, but a successful abstract painting also requires a certain sober restraint, a capacity to step back, lay down the brush, and decide: This is it.
When people look at abstract paintings and say, "My kid could do that," they're right—up to a point. Given the right materials and a little bit of coaching, any kid—or elephant or chimpanzee—can produce something that looks like art, or at least something that looks like Abstract Expressionism. In the 1950s, artists like de Kooning and Pollock proposed a radically new way of thinking about painting: as the direct trace of the artist's physical engagement with the materials. Harold Rosenberg, the critic who first coined the term "action painting," put it like this: "At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze, or 'express' an object, actual or imagined. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event." The Ab-Exers were great formal innovators, but even more important than Pollock's drips or de Kooning's arabesques was their revolutionary insight that a painting can represent nothing other than the process of its own creation.
Now, more than half a century later, we're still reeling from this revelation. Hence the continuing fascination with cases like Marla's. For those who believe that painting must be about something more than just color and gesture—like craft or technical skill or mimetic representation—abstract paintings by children and animals provide the ultimate refutation, proof that modern art is indeed a hoax. But such skeptics profoundly miss the point of the art they're trying to debunk. Yes, anyone can pick up a brush and slather paint on canvas in a drippy style that evokes Jackson Pollock. But it took an artist like Pollock to step back from his own work, which at the time looked unlike anything that had come before, and say, with bold conviction: "This is it. This is what modern painting looks like." In other words, Pollock taught us how to see art in a new way.
Marla, the elephants, and perhaps even your own brilliant progeny may be terrific painters—but they're not artists. This is because art is not just about making things or slapping pigment on canvas; it's also a way of thinking and seeing. Marla and the elephants are primitives, not prodigies. With no understanding of the issues at stake, there's little chance that their work will push art in any meaningful new direction. But this doesn't mean we should dismiss them entirely. As viewers, we can appreciate their paintings as art, even if they didn't intend them as such. And, as the stars of their own media circuses, these exuberant painters serve a crucial role as catalysts for discussion, inadvertently prodding a broader public to come to terms with the mid-century revolution in seeing that permanently and profoundly changed modern art.