The Wunderkind That Wasn’t


An irresistible subject for a documentary: The charming celebrity of Marla Olmstead, an artist from upstate New York whose talent for impossibly confident abstractions triggered a media frenzy and five-figure price tags. Unveiled at a local coffee shop, Marla’s middling AbEx doodles might not have inspired more than a glance at the milk-and-sugar station were it not for the astonishing revelation that their maker was all of four years old. Supposedly.

An unexpected development: Growing suspicions that Mark Olmstead, Marla’s father and an amateur painter himself, may have lent more than encouraging words to his daughter’s endeavor. Dazzled by the media attention (and, one presumes, the money), he was stumped by the inevitable backlash, unable to offer convincing proof of his daughter’s sole authorship.

An inevitable talking head: “There’s this large idea out there that abstract art and modern art in general has no standards, no truths,” says Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic of The New York Times and running commentator on the cultural implications of the Marla mystery in My Kid Could Paint That. “That if a child could do it, it pulls the veil off this con game.”

What began as a human-interest story for filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev led down stranger paths than the Duchampian conundrums of modern art. The Olmsteads, desiring an ally to tell their side of the story, granted Bar-Lev intimate access to their household, and My Kid Could Paint That is foremost a study in a most unusual and unsettling family dynamic. Mark’s eagerness to exploit Marla’s fame is poised against his wife Laura’s reluctance and intuition that theirs is a situation bound to get out of control. Meanwhile, little Marla bears no sign of distress over her extraordinary circumstances, making her innocent poise all the more poignant.

Confronted with increasing media scrutiny and skepticism, Mark produces a DVD purporting to record the start-to-finish creation of a Marla masterpiece. Bar-Lev counters with altogether more persuasive evidence to the contrary via split-screen comparison of canvasses. Are Mark and Laura lying? If My Kid Could Paint That is the record of a con, its artists are supremely confident practitioners. Is Marla, as the parents claim, simply too shy on camera to work in her true style? Evidence points to some level of assistance, but no conclusions are drawn. “Your documentary will be a lie,” Kimmelman says to the camera, speaking to larger questions of authenticity raised by Bar-Lev; “it’s how you decided to tell a particular story.”