Stand before any abstract painting—try a Jackson Pollock or a Cy Twombly— and it’s inevitable someone will say: My child could have done that. For many, the dripping splatters or scribbles seem haphazard and simplistic, not unlike something an average toddler might do with a set of finger paints. And as contemporary art becomes more conceptual, it’s harder to know what makes a piece of art great: the object itself, the story behind it, or both? Seven-year-old Australian abstract painter Aelita Andre, whose latest exhibition opened in Manhattan last week, embodies what one art historian calls the “my kid could do that” impulse. Once again, the media seems taken with the idea that a child’s art may be a joke on a self-important art world.
But Aelita’s journey to the center of the New York art scene raises deeper questions about what actually makes a prodigy and to what extent the artist even matters. Are her pieces only here, in one of the most influential art markets— and reportedly selling for five-figure sums—because she’s so young? Must a prodigy eventually break new ground? Be able to reflect on her work? Are prodigies culturally determined or are there scientific criteria?
When I arrive at the 18th Street gallery two blocks west of Chelsea’s blue-chip art district, Aelita seems like a typical little girl in bright pink sneakers. She runs from a back room, energetic and shy. It is the day before the opening of “Oracle of Space," her third, solo New York show (her last was in June 2012). This time, her current gallery is calling it a "pop-up" exhibition, since it runs only for a week, with the pieces then stored on Mott street for potential buyers to view. Aelita’s parents tell me she’s still jetlagged and wakes them at 3:30 a.m., ready to the start the day. Her canvases, some of which incorporate glitter and tiny, plastic dinosaurs—the kind you might find in a child’s party favor—are already labeled with whimsical, precocious titles like “The Dome of the Dinosaur Spa” and “Rainbow Splash And The Fish Feather.” Her mother is adamant that Aelita names each painting unassisted.