The Blind Art Collector

(Last Updated On: December 13, 2015)

In the beginning of Public Speaking, a film about Fran Lebowitz, she tells the story of an art collector who was showing off his multi-million dollar Picasso to some friends. When he turned around, his elbow went through the canvas and tore it. You see, this man could not see and this incident serves as an apt metaphor for our age.

…there is no more suitable and potent image-symbol for our time than the image of the blind art collector. -Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, 2010

Lebowitz mused that that would make an excellent book title. Sorry for stealing your thunder Fran, but the two films reviewed here really demonstrate different aspects of this phenomenon: Catfish (2010) and My Kid Could Paint That (2007).

Watching Catfish is a fun adventure because it is not simply a documentary, but a mystery that takes place in real time. It is about the evolving relationship between a dance photographer named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman and a woman named Angela through Facebook. Schulman shares an office with two filmmakers in New York and they decided they wanted to document this interesting development.

It all started after the exhibition of one of his photographs; shortly after, he got a unexpected package in the mail. It was a painting of his photograph, ostensibly produced by an 8-year-old girl named Abby.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (1)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (1)

When first I saw this, I knew I had to share this story with Pigtails readers, not imagining how many twists and turns there would be. Over time, Angela introduced Schulman to a number of her family members, all seemingly endowed with artistic talent. Alex was Abby’s brother who was part of a rock band and Abby’s half-sister, Megan, was a singer, musician and dancer. Abby continued to send paintings of Schulman’s pictures and he began to hear about her prodigious output and the popularity of her work at gallery showings. At a certain point, he could request a painting (from Abby) or a song (from Megan) and it would be produced in short order. The bubble finally burst when Schulman and the filmmakers got suspicious about this fast turnaround. With a little investigating, they realized that Angela was simply taking music found on the internet and calling it her own. Schulman was deflated at being so deceived and his instinct was to cut off all contact, but it was decided that they should slyly confront her about her ruse and see where it led. After a show in Colorado, the crew flew to Chicago and drove to a small town in Upper Michigan to see how she would react to a surprise visit. They planned to handle things gingerly so Angela would not be scared off right away. After the initial greetings, he finally got to meet Abby who was with her friend when they arrived.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (2)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (2)

While Abby was getting ready, Schulman cornered the friend to talk about this prolific output. Being unprepared for this unexpected visit, this turned into something of a clearcut confession.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (3)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (3)

When Abby finally came out, the gentle interrogation continued and getting flustered, she finally exclaimed, “You’re confusing me!”

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (4)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (4)

Having secured his confession, he continued to spend time with Angela looking for the right time to confront her without needlessly hurting or embarrassing her. He realized she was just a lonely woman looking for a way to connect on a deeper level with a bigger world. Her home life was both mundane and challenging with a mentally-challenged son who needed a lot of care. Finally, while Abby was having her riding lesson, he coaxed the truth out of her, assuring her that everything was all right and that he was no longer upset by her deception.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (5)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (5)

It was an especially moving story because instead of exacting revenge, Schulman made a real connection with a warm and imaginative woman—who was, of course, the real painter. By the end of shooting, the two of them remained Facebook friends.

The second film is about a 4-year-old named Marla Olmstead. It is an instructive story about fame, the media and the fickle art world. Marla’s parents, Laura and Mark, say all of this was just a fluke. While Mark was doing some painting, Marla started begging him to do some painting as well. Instead of just sticking her in front of the television, he obliged. He learned that it made more sense to just have her work on a canvas placed flat on the dining room table instead of an easel.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Like any proud parent would, they loved her “masterpieces”. Friends kept commenting on the work and one who owned a coffee shop asked if he could hang some of them at his place of business. The canvases garnered a lot of positive comment and he was compelled to ask the family for prices so they might be sold. Anthony Brunelli, himself a realist painter, offered to have her work exhibited along with his. He contacted a local paper and a family and parenting columnist for The Press & Sun Bulletin, Elizabeth Cohen, did a human interest piece on Marla. When someone at The New York Times got wind of it, the fuse was lit. The ironic part is that Marla did not seem to like all the attention and was normally the quietest kid in her class—unlike her little brother Zane, who could be seen hamming it up in front of the camera. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to a lot of grown-ups about her artistic vision. Whenever she was in the mood to paint, she was made to wear a denim dress that would be easy to clean after the inevitable mess.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of Marla and her parents had to confer with each other often about who should have access and who should not. After some time in the spotlight, it was inevitable that the media should turn on her. The story was getting stale and so there had to be a new angle. On February 23, 2005, a 60 Minutes story aired essentially calling Marla’s work a fraud. The niggling problem was that whenever there was a camera trained on her, she would produce these muddy compositions that did not reflect the style of her other work. This called into question whether she really did the canvases by herself and Mark and Laura got the expectable accusations of being bad parents and exploiting their child for personal gain. After the shock of the 60 Minutes piece subsided and nervous collectors were happily buying her work again, the Olmsteads cautiously agreed to allow Amir Bar-Lev to create this documentary. He promised to cover the story objectively and let the viewers decide if this was a fraud or not. It was a difficult task because Marla, being a real 4-year-old, did not take a full-time interest in painting. A hidden camera was set up and finally she was shot producing an actual work. Nevertheless, critics were not satisfied as this piece still did not seem to meet the standards of those that came before. At age five, Marla continued to get high prices for her work.  Here she is attending one of her showings.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

I’m afraid the filmmaker left the audience hanging as he could not make a definitive conclusion. And I had a bad feeling in my stomach because I knew that most people would look at this story in a conventional way—taking one side or another—and not see what it reveals about abstract art and the human mind. Many simply regard abstract art as a simple fraud. Indeed, a testament to an artist’s skill is his ability to communicate an idea clearly with at least some elements of realism. Laura hated it when people called Marla a prodigy and it is a reasonable complaint. The reality may seem a bit dull to some but a little girl had a rare opportunity to express herself with paint simply because the tools were on hand—including a supportive father who could bring together the materials. It is no surprise that someone so young would produce abstract images as they are an expression of the unabashed impulses of the subconscious which could not only be produced by 4-year-old, but would be appreciated by the sensitive adult mind. Adults do tend to forget how aware small children can be. Even the parents erroneously assumed that, in her innocence, she was oblivious to the vagaries of fame. I actually did not find it surprising at all that Marla could not be herself when being watched, even when shot by a hidden camera.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Unfortunately, society’s current assumptions and modern scientific understanding are inadequate to understanding the subtleties of this story and others like it and reflects how far we still have to go. I was told about a similar case in Australia of Aelita Andre. Whereas Marla is private and subdued, Aelita is articulate and self-possessed and yet both reveal something universal about the human mind as yet unhindered by the constraints of culture.

Aelita Andre website

2 thoughts on “The Blind Art Collector

  1. This is a thought-provoking and very well written piece. It not only explores the nature of children’s creative expression, but the responsibility of the parents and other adults in handling childhood fame (or notoriety).

    Additionally, there is food for thought on the qualitative distinctions to be made in abstract art, where indeed quality has assumed quantifiable hierarchies in art historical criticism in spite of the inapplicability of draughtsman’s skill in reproducing observable realities being used as a yardstick.

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