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October 8, 2007 |

By John Williams | Film | October 8, 2007 |

The Impressionists first displayed their work in the 1860s. In 1910, Pablo Picasso gave us Le Guitariste and Georges Braque finished Violin and Candlestick. Mark Rothko’s blocks of color started appearing before 1950. Despite this long history, modern art is still viewed with suspicion by many (not all of them pure philistines). It certainly has its excesses and absurdities, providing a healthy-sized bull’s eye for cultural critics prone to mixing satire with their analysis. (For one of the best examples, see Tom Wolfe’s slender but potent book, The Painted Word, which first appeared as an essay in Harper’s in 1975.)

The fact remains that even allowing for a distinction between the Old Masters and the modern movements, and allowing for vigorous argument about the relative merit of methods and their impact on viewers, the widely aired notion that “my kid could paint that” is, almost every time, hogwash. Admittedly, there are exceptions, but the best of modern art is — at least — visually determined in a way so that even what looks initially chaotic gives way to some sign of organizing intelligence. The story of Marla Olmstead nicely illustrates the point.

Marla, at the time director Amir Bar-Lev began this documentary in 2004, was a 4-year-old in Binghamton, New York, about 175 miles northwest of Chelsea, but thousands of metaphorical miles from any significant art scene. Her abstract paintings were shown for fun in a local coffee shop run by a friend of her family, and inquiries from customers soon made it clear there was a serious demand for the art. Before long, Marla’s parents, the reluctant Laura and the gung-ho Mark, teamed up with local artist and gallerist Anthony Brunelli to formally exhibit the young girl’s work. Her paintings began selling for thousands of dollars, and national exposure, including a profile in the New York Times and an appearance on “Today,” followed.

For the first half of the movie, Bar-Lev thinks he has a story about a child prodigy or the insanity of the modern-art world, depending on your feelings about abstract expressionism. But halfway through, in a scene that’s uncomfortable to watch, he films the family watching a “60 Minutes” segment on Marla. Toward the end of the show, Charlie Rose has an expert doubting whether the same child shown painting for the program’s cameras could have finished the art that’s being sold. It’s suggested that Mark is helping his daughter, perhaps even painting most of the works himself (he was a manager at a manufacturing plant at the time, but also a recreational artist).

Once the story shifts, Bar-Lev spends a lot of time wringing his hands about whether the quest to make a great film should override his loyalty to the Olmsteads, who have given him very intimate access to their lives and whom he has come to like. The hand-wringing seems personally felt, but professionally it comes off as disingenuous. Without the “60 Minutes” report, Bar-Lev might have had a somewhat clever look at the hoary debate about modern art, but not much more. (New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman ably serves as a talking head to summarize some of the pro and con arguments, but you’ve likely heard them before.) And rather than deepening the documentary, Bar-Lev’s “crisis” only points out his flaws as a reporter and filmmaker — even though he had prolonged access to the family, and could see a difference between the result of Marla’s work in front of him and the finished pictures, it took the “60 Minutes” piece to plant a seed of doubt in him.

The movie never resolves the mystery, nor does it seem to have been resolved since the cameras stopped rolling, but one does leave the theater feeling that Mark’s contribution to the paintings was considerable. What’s never really explored is why this matters on an artistic level (on a transactional level, it’s right to be concerned about the potential lies told to collectors). It’s not like Marla Olmstead was tapped for fame by a cunning curator at MoMA. As we speak, countless children the world over are purposelessly dragging their knuckles through watercolors, all the resultant work to be rightfully noticed and praised by no one. Marla drew attention because the work stood out. These were colorful, playful, balanced paintings — not just any child could produce them.

And in fact, perhaps a child didn’t. You’ll have to decide that for yourself. But for those drawn to the movie because they believe in the snarky sentiment it adopts for a title, try to understand: Your child might be the next Rothko, but though that would make him or her extraordinary, it wouldn’t render art since 1860 irrelevant.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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