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Art as child’s play

It’s been a big week for non-figurative art. On Thursday, it was reported that French archaeologists discovered a wall painting in Syria whose tricolored, geometric pattern resembles the work of abstract painter Paul Klee. The catch: At 11,000 years old, it’s the oldest painting in the world. So much for the theory that the Impressionists changed everything.

Meanwhile, a documentary film recently showed up in theaters that asked some remarkably trenchant questions about the way we measure the value of art. “My Kid Could Paint That,” directed by Amir Bar-Lev, focuses on the rumpus surrounding Marla Olmstead, a Binghamton, N.Y., girl who at age 4 was anointed a prodigy in abstract painting.

As the legend goes, when Marla was not yet 2, her father, Mark Olmstead, set her up at an easel so she’d be occupied while he worked on his own painting (a manager of a Frito-Lay plant, Olmstead had long dabbled in art). The little girl began producing large, colorful, paint-splattered creations. In typical parent fashion, Mark and his wife, Laura, hung one on the wall, where it was admired by a friend who owned a coffee shop. When, strictly for kicks, the friend put it on display in the shop, it sold for $250.

Shortly after that, a Binghamton gallery owner took notice and, in 2004, Marla had her first solo exhibition. Thanks to a local newspaper article that was picked up by the New York Times, the show sold out. A year and a half later, Marla would garner up to $20,000 for a single work.

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Whether or not Marla is a prodigy, we know two things for sure: 1) She likes to paint, and 2) her canvases look a lot like the work of a child, but, to some eyes, they also look a lot like work that could be hanging in a contemporary art museum (or, for that matter, could have been painted by cavemen).

The “prodigy” label, which seems to have been introduced by adults who have an interest in its monetary value, is more difficult to parse. Being a prodigy generally means possessing some kind of observable technical gift at a young age -- you can factor or play the piano beyond your years. But when it comes to abstract painting -- making conscious or unconscious decisions about moving paint around on a canvas -- the notion seems both irrelevant and oxymoronic. After all, if there are prodigies in abstract art, what about performance art? Who’s to say the kid who covers himself in maple syrup and sticks Styrofoam peanuts all over his body doesn’t deserve an NEA grant?

In Marla’s case, these questions are further complicated by the long-running suspicion that her pieces are coached and even finished by her father. While participating in a “60 Minutes II” segment hosted by Charlie Rose, the Olmsteads agreed to the placement of hidden cameras in their home to capture Marla painting a canvas from start to finish. On viewing the resulting footage, a psychologist who’d previously been impressed with the maturity of the paintings became skeptical, noting “either somebody else is painting them . . . or somebody else doctored them up. Or Marla just miraculously paints in a completely different way than we see on her home video.”

As ethical and aesthetic quandaries go, it doesn’t get richer than this. Aside from the questions about integrity -- of the work itself, of Mark and Laura Olmstead, of opportunistic gallery owners, of the countless journalists whose stories got a second life when the public’s breathless adoration swerved toward suspicion and blame -- Marla the Artist is a fascinating distillation not just of our culture’s romanticization of childhood but of our inherent mistrust of certain forms of creative expression.

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Of course, it’s exciting to believe you’re witnessing a prodigy. But for those who believe abstract art is a sham, witnessing Marla is even more exciting. If she is simply pushing paint around in an ordinary preschool manner, it’s possible to interpret her public existence as the ultimate practical joke on the contemporary art world. That makes Marla a hero not just to those who believe she is a genius but also to those who consider her whole milieu a fraud. And while the “60 Minutes II” revelations may have threatened the Marla empire (afterward, there was a sharp, if temporary, drop in sales), the fact that she’s still selling paintings (to date, more than $300,000 worth) suggests that the scandal may have only added to her mystique.

Of course, by serious art world standards, that’s barely cab fare. But considering how off-putting, even scary, abstract painting can be for some people, should we really be all that surprised by Marla’s success? Like cave paintings, art by children has the rare distinction of being revered simply because it exists. That’s why it ultimately doesn’t matter whether Marla’s work is any good. What matters is that she’s the cutest caveman we’ve ever seen -- and she’s got a website.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com


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