What is art?

And other big questions raised by My Kid Could Paint That

Mike D'Angelo

Anyone who’s ever stood in goggle-eyed befuddlement before some abstract behemoth at the Museum of Modern Art, trying to work out the difference between the alleged masterpiece hanging on the wall and the finger-paint experiments Susie brings home from preschool, will want to see the astonishing new documentary pointedly titled My Kid Could Paint That. As it turns out, however, the story of Marla Olmstead, an acclaimed painter whose big, smeary canvases began selling for upwards of five figures when she was only 4 years old, raises much bigger and more troubling questions than the one most likely envisioned by director Amir Bar-Lev. “Is abstract art essentially a sophisticated con game?” his film dutifully asks ... but that area of inquiry quickly gets overshadowed by others. “Did this cute little girl in fact paint these alleged masterworks herself?” “Are we driven to destroy everything we build, just out of sheer boredom?” “Is this very film just another instance of emotional terrorism?” Not since Capturing the Friedmans has a docmaker inadvertently stumbled into such murky territory.

Like most child prodigies, Marla Olmstead, born in February 2000, was instructed and encouraged by a parent nursing unfulfilled dreams. Mark Olmstead, the night manager of a Frito-Lay plant in upstate New York, had dabbled for years as an amateur painter, with no success apart from his own satisfaction. One day, on a whim, he provided his little daughter, then all of 4, with her own brushes and canvas, and was bowled over by the vivid and startlingly complex tumult of shapes and colors that emerged. Hung in a local coffee shop for fun, Marla’s paintings immediately attracted not just attention but eager buyers; within a matter of months, she had her own gallery opening and a story in the New York Times. This was roughly the point at which Bar-Lev approached the Olmstead family, hoping to make a movie that would explore not just the Marla phenomenon but also the very essence of abstract expressionism, which continues to alienate as many people as it enthralls. He had no idea that Charlie Rose, in a segment on Marla produced for 60 Minutes II, was about to charge fraud.

The resulting controversy—has Mark been surreptitiously assisting his child all along?—is plenty gripping in and of itself, especially given Dad’s visible anxiety when Marla demands his artistic collaboration at one point. But it also transforms My Kid Could Paint That into a sobering disquisition on America’s narrative fallacy: the way that we assign value to almost everything based largely on how compelling the story is, and our relentless need for any given story to change and evolve. Collectors and galleries had insisted that Marla’s age, though astounding, was irrelevant, but they instantly began to hem and haw once her authorship was questioned. Bar-Lev is as curious as anybody else and struggles to secure footage of Marla creating one of her paintings from start to finish; his investigation proves inconclusive, as the work she does on camera strikes most eyes, including my own, as significantly less polished and elegant than her “classic” canvases. But are those earlier paintings any less beautiful if they aren’t bona fide juvenilia? You either respond to an abstract image or you don’t—one can’t think, “That yellow isn’t as searing as it seemed when I believed that the artist grew up in Chile.” So does it really matter who held the brush? Why do we care so much?

To his credit, Bar-Lev leaves this central question implicit, apart from a handful of interviews with journalists that reveal the voracious nature of the news cycle. But there’s hardly any aspect of American life left untouched by the film’s true subject—indeed, we choose our president in more or less the same way that Marla’s paintings found their way into galleries. (Three words: Swift Boat Veterans.) From one paltry case of potential fraud, My Kid Could Paint That fashions a disturbing cultural diagnosis. And this hunger for a compelling story, damn the cost, ultimately permeates the film itself, as Bar-Lev finds himself torn between his genuine affection for the Olmstead family, who welcomed him into their home, and his desire to make a kickass movie that would betray their trust. When Marla’s mother, who nurses doubts about her daughter’s fame throughout filming, bitterly refers to one late development as “documentary gold,” it’s at once a scathing rebuke and an undeniable truth.

My Kid Could Paint That


Directed by Amir Bar-Lev

Rated PG-13

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