Even A Kid Could Do It

BEAUTIFUL ALEXANDRA NECHITA, age 10, puts on her paint-dappled "magic slippers" and hums a little tune. She ties an apron around her waist. Then -- oblivious to the sounds of the nearby freeway in Norwalk, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles -- she begins to paint. Not little Monopoly houses and trees that look like lollipops, but six-foot canvases packed with colorful cubisty images that call to mind the work of Picasso and Klee. Alexandra puts in two or three hours each school day in her studio -- a room in her parents' modest tract house -- and paints all day on weekends. Her pictures now bring up to $50,000 and have found their way into the homes of rocker Melissa Etheridge, comic Ellen DeGeneres and Lee Iacocca. Alexandra is the subject of a new coffee-table book, "Outside the Lines" (100 pages. Longstreet. $25). She'll have a big Beverly Hills exhibition in August. Her second European publicity tour starts this summer. She's appeared on CNN and "CBS Sunday Morning." Nevertheless, Alexandra insists, "I love doing cartwheels. I do every single thing every other 10-year-old does."

She's a child prodigy, a warm, fuzzy human-interest story immune so far to the verdicts of art critics and art history. But she's no little match girl. Alexandra already has an agent, Ben Valenty, who gushes, "This is Mozart with a paintbrush." David Feldman of Tufts University, an expert on prodigies, has a more temperate view. After examining reproductions from "Outside the Lines," he says: "Any child that age who produces works of that quality should be taken seriously, as a prodigy if not an artist."

In 1985 Niki Nechita escaped from communist Romania, leaving behind his wife, Viorica, who was six months pregnant with Alexandra. Two years later, mother and daughter joined him in Los Angeles. By the time she was 4, the crayon-obsessed Alexandra made her own coloring books from scrap computer paper Viorica brought home from her job at a prosthetics factory. She began painting on canvas at 6. A year later Niki arranged shows for Alexandra at a local library and a bookstore, which is where Valenty discovered her.

The question is whether Alexandra will develop from a prodigy into an artist of serious rank. Some say her current work is derivative of early modern masters whose art she's seen in books. Valenty has a ready response: "You can't compare Alexandra at 10 to all those great men at 40 ... She won't remain stagnant. I think at 40 she'll be one of the leading artists of the day." But Alexandra is exhibiting now, like an adult. Roger Shepherd, the fine-arts chairman at Manhattan's Parsons School of Design, says, "Sometimes I think she should change her name, go to art school and then resume her career."

Is Alexandra being exploited? The Nechita household is filled with genuine affection, and Valenty seems to have a real rapport with Alexandra. He's not exactly a blue-chip art dealer, however. In 1994, in a settlement with the FTC, he agreed not to telemarket movie posters as investments. According to Niki, he's taking nearly 70 percent of sales (50 percent is the art dealers' standard) in return for guaranteeing Alexandra $600,000 over four years. Having grossed $3 million with Alexandra in the last nine months, he's got reasons to keep the kiddiekunst ball rolling. Alexandra has painted about 300 paintings so far and can produce a new one every few days.

The galleries where Alexandra is set to show are on the expensive decorator fringe of the art world, where slick, imitative art is sold to people who aren't serious collectors. Critics ignore them. Since paintings on a wall have a longer shelf life than, say, concerts by a precociously young violinist, buyers of early Nechitas may find themselves saying, a decade down the road, "Well, the artist was only 10 when she did it."

Alexandra may have moved on by then to fresh pursuits. According to Valenty, she has already been approached by movie studios, including Disney. Art, money, fame: a lot to handle for somebody yet to see sixth grade. At first she tried to hide her talent from her classmates. "The kids [at school] would make fun of my drawings," she says, "so in school I would draw stick figures. When I came home, I'd be Alexandra Nechita." Now there's no more ridicule to put up with, just the chore of juggling interviews. "This is NEWSWEEK, right?"