The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
For many of us abstract modern art is confusing and incomprehensible. We fail to connect with it, to understand it, to see its complexity, or even to recognize its historical validity. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard museum visitors say, “That’s not art! A kid could have painted that,” when staring down a Jackson Pollock or gliding by a Willem de Kooning.
But could a child have painted that? In 2004, it appeared as if indeed the answer was yes when 4-year-old Marla Olmstead became a hot-selling artist in the art world. Critics, gallery owners and journalists labeled her a “budding Picasso,” and she sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings. Her canvases were colorful and expressive, clearly reminiscent of the gestural abstraction of Pollock.
If the answer is yes, then is Abstract Expressionism a fraud—worthy of being called "art"? Let’s continue with Marla’s story for a minute. By February of 2005, Marla’s skill and the authenticity of her works were under scrutiny. A “60 Minutes” episode questioned whether Marla actually painted the earlier canvases and suggested that, in fact, Marla’s father was guiding her hand or painting parts of them himself.
A 2007 documentary, “My Kid Could Paint That,” directed by Amir Bar-Lev focuses on Marla’s rise and fall, the media frenzy surrounding it, and the Olmsteads' efforts to clear their name. Bar-Lev catches the tiny tot covered in paint clearly enjoying smacking it on the canvas, squeezing it in her fingers and using brushes and spatulas to create swirls and squiggles. Suspicions begin to grow when Bar-Lev attempts to capture Marla painting one work from start to finish, and she asks her father to help her with a face. The documentary raises interesting questions about child prodigies, stage parents, the media and documentary film making.
Whether you think Marla’s father had a significant hand in the work Marla produced or not, her story is revealing in regards to the validity of Abstract Expressionism. The joy Marla derives from the action of painting and her untutored, “primitive” approach lies at the essence of Abstract Expressionism. According to Harold Rosenberg, Pollock and others approached the canvas as a material to be transformed, painting was an “event,” and the meeting of artist and paint an “encounter.” Abstract Expressionists were interested in the process as much as the product and in conveying their inner beings and emotions. It is no wonder their paintings appear child-like.
But in her article about the Olmsteads, “Does Marla Olmstead’s work belong in a museum or on the fridge?”, Mia Fineman suggests “abstract painting also requires a certain sober restraint,” and a true artists knows when to stop painting. Pollock as an artist, not just a painter, knew when to step back from the canvas and declare his work "art"—and truly modern art at that. Abstract Expressionism is not just valid art, but it was revolutionary art. So revolutionary that we are still grappling with what it means.
The real question for me is why. Why are we still grappling with it? Why do people still bypass Abstract Expressionist works and dismiss them?
If these questions and Marla Olmstead’s story interests you, check out a screening of “My Kid Could Paint That” at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art (a Knight Arts grantee) Monday, May 13 at 6 p.m. as part of their Modern Mondays Series. Admission is free and a cash bar is available. Bechtler's President and CEO, John Boyer, will lead a discussion following the screening.