MARLA OLMSTEAD IS now seven years old and has been rich and famous for almost half her life. Rich, anyway, by most people's standards, let alone most children's: at one point, she earned over $300,000 in a matter of months. And famous in the USA, where in 2004 a flurry of first local and then national news coverage made her possibly the most celebrated tot in the country. Soon, thanks to a new and fascinating documentary in which she features, her fame - or perhaps we should say notoriety - may well be global.
The film is called My Kid Could Paint That. It is about Marla, but more than that, it is about the tornado which in those few, hectic months spun ferociously around her - a swirling tumult first of publicity, money and acclaim; then of mystery, accusation, denial and recrimination. Marla, as you will have guessed, is an artist, and the large abstract canvases bearing her signature - painted at her home in Binghamton, a small municipality in New York state - have been by turns hailed as the work of a four-year-old phenomenon and denounced as the product of a parental fraud. Is Marla a genius? Or is the poppet merely a puppet, inexcusably deployed as a front by a hoaxer of a father and his art-dealer accomplice?
That is the question at the heart of the movie; but it leads in turn to many more, all of them intriguing. How do we judge the quality of art? How can we set a price on it? How do we even define it? Why is authenticity important? Are the artist's own intentions relevant? Quite inadvertently, Marla Olmstead has succeeded in what so many modern artists vainly (in both senses of the word) proclaim as their mission: to make us examine the very nature of art itself.
This was what director Amir Bar-Lev had in mind when he approached Marla's parents, Mark, the night manager of a snack factory, and Laura, a dentist's assistant - an ordinary young couple with an apparently extraordinary daughter. “I wanted to explore how modern art is judged and valued given the lack of objective standards,” he explains, when I meet him in a London hotel to discuss his film. “The fact that she was doing abstract art and people were saying she's a prodigy raised a bunch of interesting questions.”
What he did not expect was that, as filming proceeded, his movie would become as much a whodunit, a gripping real-life drama, and an exposť of the roles of hype and hucksterism in the art business, as a disquisition on art. “It was very quickly clear to me,” adds Bar-Lev, “that this wasn't going to be a film about what goes on in the mind of a genius. It's much more about sociology and much more about the media and about the market. It's a tale about a lot of adults, not one child.”
THE STORY, ACCORDING to Mark Olmstead and his then associate Anthony Brunelli (the pair have since parted ways), began like this: from the age of two, Marla had been an enthusiastic painter, encouraged to create her extraordinarily vivid pictures by Mark, an amateur painter himself. Brunelli, owner of a Binghamton gallery, happened across her work in a local coffee shop; unaware of its provenance, he was struck by its energy, and resolved to seek out its creator. This led him to Mark Olmstead, whom he recognised as a childhood friend he had not seen since the end of their schooldays.
We hear this account from both men as Bar-Lev cuts between separate interviews with each; it sounds a well-rehearsed tale - peculiarly so, even this early on. But nothing is quite as simple as that in this film, and Bar Lev - who aims to be as scrupulous and fair a documentarian as the format's constraints will allow - certainly does not seem to be trying to lead us down a particular path. No doubt both men have indeed got the story down pat; they have already repeated it for any number of media outlets. And that doesn't mean it isn't true, although like many things one or the other will go on to say, it has a curious but indefinable smack of contrivance about it.
What happened next would change the lives of everyone involved. In August 2004, Elizabeth Cohen, a journalist at the Binghamton Press And Sun Bulletin, wrote the very first article about Marla, just as Brunelli staged the little girl's debut exhibition at his gallery. It was the flurry of consequent publicity that led to Bar-Lev's own arrival on the scene, just in time to film the October opening of Marla's second exhibition at Brunelli Fine Arts.
Bar-Lev's camera was just one among many. In the hubbub and chaos of a major media event, while Mark Olmstead smiled and basked, and Laura Olmstead (who in certain lights might be a homier Gwyneth Paltrow) smiled but fretted, the only protagonist oblivious to the fuss and its implications was the four-year-old star of the show, shying away from adult attention to skip through the forest of legs and cables with her friends. The circus had come to town; but exactly who was the ringmaster, who the performers, and who the audience, was never entirely clear.
AT FIRST, CONTROVERSY was restricted to the merit of the pictures themselves. As Bar-Lev puts it: “You had those who were saying, these are the work of a genius. You had those who were saying, these are derivative and this has been done fifty years ago. You had those who were saying, no child could make something of value because their motives are different; even if it looks the same, it can't be, because intentionality is important, concepts are important. And then you had those people who were saying, well it's just a little girl finger-painting - what's all the fuss about?”
Some, echoing the much-repeated sentiment in the film's title, saw in Marla confirmation of their own prejudices about abstract art as a whole. The Italian periodical Oggi wrote: “She is painting exactly as all the adult paintings have been in the last 50 years, but painting like a child, too. That is what everybody thinks, but they don't dare to say it.” Marla, it seemed, had become a lightning rod for the longstanding argument between (depending on your point of view) the enlightened and the philistines, or the pretentious and the sensible.
Bar-Lev - who by his own admission “knew nothing about modern art” when he undertook the project - enlisted Michael Kimmelman, Chief Art Critic of The New York Times, as a cinematic Virgil to guide us through this netherworld. Kimmelman, lucid, thoughtful and undogmatic, never fails to illuminate the subject. “It touches on deep-rooted issues about whether modern art is real or not,” we hear him say. “There's this large idea out there that abstract art, and modern art in general,
has no standards, no truths. That if a child could do it, it pulls the veil off this con game.”
And just as long as modern art itself was seen as the villain, what we might call the Marla camp couldn't lose. The controversy would generate publicity. The publicity would sell paintings - and it did; notably, as Bar-Lev points out, to “collectors who don't collect a lot of modern art. Many people I spoke with said, I hate abstract art, but I love Marla Olmstead. The modern art establishment, so far as there is one, pretty much ignored Marla. People were buying Marla not for the same reasons that you would buy Jackson Pollock or something like that, but because they liked the story that she was a four-year-old.” And how could a four-year-old girl, painting for the joy of painting, possibly be complicit in some kind of scam?
She couldn't. But she could, of course, be the innocent facade for one. And on February 23 2005, that was what the investigative programme 60 Minutes II, aired nationally on the CBS network, strongly suggested. Why had nobody outside the family actually seen Marla creating the pictures? Why had no independently-wielded camera been able to capture her talent? (The show's own videotape saw her painting, all right; but the results were pedestrian, mundanely childish rather than brilliantly child-like, a world away from the vibrant canvases on the gallery walls.) Was it not possible that those who gushed about her “incredible” precocity and talent were more right than they knew? In short: did her Dad do it?
Bar-Lev, by now a fixture in the Olmstead home, at first believed there was nothing to the accusations. Hadn't he himself filmed Marla at work? But when he returned to the footage, it didn't show quite what he expected. If anything, it sowed doubts in his own mind about just how much the paintings owed to Marla, and how much to Mark. “I wished I could exonerate the family. For their own sake, forget about the art.”
In Bar-Lev's film, we see almost tangible shock, despair and panic strike everyone involved. If the ambivalence and increasing reluctance displayed by Laura Olmstead throughout the film is not real, then she must be an actress of greater gifts than those artistic ones attributed to her daughter. Laura appears worried solely about her family. And Mark? Is it his child's talent he feels impelled to defend; or his own good name; or the mini industry he and Brunelli have set up around Marla? It's impossible to say; but as The Sunday Times noted in December 2007: “When money changes hands, people tend to take everything more seriously ≠ as the Olmsteads painfully discovered.”
Mark Olmstead's response to the programme was to start recording the creation of a Marla painting, Ocean, from start to finish, and release the results on a DVD of the same title.
MARLA WAS A brand by now, with a logo made up of the single, daubed word of her signature. Her West Coast debut, in March, at the Stu-Art Gallery in Encino, California, was a washout. Whereas plenty of people had wanted, in Bar-Lev's words, “to buy a piece of innocence incarnate”, they were less enthusiastic about what they now perceived to be the work of innocence incarnate's charlatan father.
With the Ocean DVD, Mark Olmstead and Brunelli looked to repair the damage in time for a summer exhibition at the same venue. But there was a problem. Like the piece filmed for 60 Minutes II, Ocean was generally deemed to lack the qualities of the other paintings attributed to Marla. In My Kid Could Paint That, we see Brunelli insisting to prospective buyers that Ocean - demonstrably a genuine “Marla” - is as good as, if not better than, anything else with her name on it. And of course, how can that be proven wrong? Back comes the question of how we value art.
Brunelli is a key figure in the movie; an artist himself, at one point he laments how his painstaking photo-realism sells for so much less than Marla's capricious images. He, too, is no advocate of abstract art; but he has no qualms about dishing out the hard sell on its behalf. Says Bar-Lev: “I don't see him as a Svengali. I see him as a salesman. And as a salesman, he's going to get as many different people as possible interested in this art.
“Somebody said about the film, 'Bar-Lev passes around the black hat', which I was very gratified to read. I hope there are no heroes and no villains in the film. The only one innocent is Marla, and she's not innocent in the way other people probably thought she was. But she's clearly not an agent in her own celebrity - the rest of us are. It's me, it's Tony [Brunelli], it's her parents, it's Elizabeth [Cohen], it's everybody else.”
In one of the movie's most engrossing aspects, Bar-Lev examines the process of documentary film-making every bit as unsparingly as he does modern art. He never flinches from his own complicity, his own effect on events. When, in a harrowing scene towards the end of the movie, Laura Olmstead tearfully reproves him for his very presence, he offers no defence. “There's no getting around those issues,” he tells me. “Those problems that I'm exploring are inherent in the medium. In this film it made sense to point to the problems, to scrutinise the problems; but a thing having limitations is not a reason to not do that thing.”
I ask Bar-Lev if, watching the film back, he started to feel there might be something to the supposedly primitive superstition that the camera steals its subject's soul. His eyes light up. “Yes! Absolutely. I read a biography of Jackson Pollock, and he also brought that up, while he was being filmed by a documentary maker. So there is a great parallel.”
And what of Marla, and her family. Do we discover the truth? My Kid Could Paint That shows truth, in this instance, to be a commodity no less slippery than artistic worth. But you would at least expect their adventure in the art world to be over. Far from it. Once again, the market for a “Marla” is on the up.
“There were record breaking offers after the film premiered at Sundance [Film Festival],” recounts Bar-Lev. “And the record breaking offers were for Ocean.” The painted alibi, the supposed proof, previously thought of as sub-standard. So does it even matter if the other “Marlas” were genuine? Or is it enough that they've now been seen in the movies? Even in the art world - perhaps especially in the art world - the currency of celebrity, it would seem, is stronger than any other.
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