One of the fault lines of modernism has always been Abstract Expressionism. Those who just don't get the intellectual concept behind it — that painting is about color (or the lack of it) as much as it's about the depiction of recognizable things — tend to be suspicious of it.
They believe it's a con, a joke at their expense. They reply, looking at a drip painting by Jackson Pollock, a white-on-white work by Robert Ryman or a color-field canvas by Mark Rothko, "My kid could paint that."
The retort to them has always been: "Well, why didn't he (or she)?" The reason is that it takes an adult with prescience far beyond a child's to have the kind of ideas that make abstract art beautiful and one work distinct from another. In the wrong hands — presumably a child's hands — it is indeed just a big mess.
So darned if this film by Amir Bar-Lev doesn't present us with a child — the adorable 4-year-old Marla Olmstead of Binghamton, N.Y. — who paints Abstract Expressionist art on large canvases with enough sense of color and balance, enough allusions to movement and ideas, to have attracted a lot of collectors.
In fact, her work has sold for five figures and garnered international attention — some of it by dismissive people who see the "smoking gun" proving that the real accomplishment in such art is its marketing. There are plenty of close-ups of Marla's paintings in this film, and they are filled with bold visual vitality. To an eye used to seeing a lot of abstract art, they look appealing enough and different from one another.
This raises all sorts of large questions that Bar-Lev is at first eager to explore — with the help of a first-class commentator, art critic Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times. Kimmelman sees in Marla's work a perfect illustration of why so many people remain suspicious of abstract art.
"People don't seem to feel in it a judging of what's good and bad," he says. "If a child can do it, it pulls the veil off the con game."
The exploration of abstraction as cultural battleground is My Kid Could Paint That's most interesting aspect. Indeed, the Binghamton gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who has championed Marla, is also a hyperrealist painter who harbors a deep-down disdain and jealousy of abstraction. It is he who actually says of such art, "My kid could paint that." (I wish Bar-Lev had spent more time with him and his own art. It appears from what is shown that he has considerable talent if an old-fashioned focus.)
It also emerges, in interviews with some of Marla's collectors, that they harbor their own naive ideas. Abstract art made by a child is somehow purer, more spiritual than that by an adult who presumably has gone to art school. It's the myth of "innocence creation," Kimmelman calls it. Marla is "speaking almost as a medium" to them.
Using Marla — who is a sweet and happy little girl unable to articulate anything intelligent about her work — as a way into such notions of art is a marvelous idea. She is basically a blank canvas.
The film gets derailed about halfway through, however, when Charlie Rose implies on a CBS 60 Minutes II report that Marla's work is being improperly guided and directed by her dad, Mark. (It's a given that Mark has provided some help; no child is going to know how to make such large-scale paintings on her own.)
This catches both the Olmsteads and Bar-Lev off guard. And at that point, the movie veers into Capturing the Friedmans territory as he puts Marla's increasingly uncomfortable middle-class parents — Mark and Laura — through hoops trying to defend the family integrity.
Maybe Bar-Lev, then, should have just dropped the project — or wait. Instead, he turns My Kid Could Paint That into a film about him having doubts. He's looking for psychodrama.
Aren't documentaries that search for truth supposed to prove something? The great Errol Morris, for instance, established the innocence of a convicted murderer in The Thin Blue Line. Instead, here the big pay-off comes when Laura cries on camera during one tough interview question. Bar-Lev says he's sorry for bringing such unpleasantness into her house. She walks away, angrily muttering, "It's documentary gold."
Maybe, but should it be? Grade: B-