The world’s top-selling female artist didn’t become so until her 80s, but the lifetime that brought Yayoi Kusama to that rarefied air — a struggle fraught with sexism, racism, and personal turmoil — is why the new documentary about her, “Kusama — Infinity,” is so fascinating and inspiring.
Whether you’re one of the lucky few to have secured tickets to her sold-out “Infinity Mirrors” exhibition currently at the Broad or a fan relegated to the suggestive pull of photographs depicting her often-dotted, hypnotic paintings and installations, filmmaker Heather Lenz has offered up a sturdy biographical once-over meant to secure her place in modern art history, a stature now globally recognized but that once nearly eluded her.
A child of conflict — both home-based and imposed by war, and who would later lead naked anti-Vietnam protests in America — Kusama grew up in provincial Matsumoto, Japan, with a yearning to paint that was actively discouraged by her traditionally minded mother. A combination of psychologically damaging family discord and hallucinatory feelings of being swallowed up by flowers and nature led Kusama to a minimalist, abstract but entrancingly expansive painting style she referred to as “self-obliteration.” (As a young artist, she wrote a solicitous mash note to Georgia O’Keeffe, sensing a kindred spirit about nature’s enveloping qualities.)
Hoping to take New York by storm in the 1950s, she instead met institutional exclusion compounded by the fact that she was female (women didn’t get solo shows) and Japanese. Her meticulous, large-sized work, whether on canvas or via immersive spaces, would earn the occasional plaudit from a well-known peer. But Lenz posits that artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol took her ideas for soft sculpture and repetitive wallpaper. In any case, the recognition (and prices) she wasn’t getting sparked a battle with depression she’s fought ever since.
As her oft-questioning work tweaked Pop Art fanaticism to encompass self-publicity and commentary, from being photographed posing with her work to scheduling disruptive happenings (usually full of nudity) in public places, Kusama’s notoriety entered a decline. She moved back to Japan in the early 1970s, which for a fiercely independent artist who had originally left her homeland for misunderstanding her in the first place, was the kind of retreat that only exacerbated her mental health issues. And yet she continued to work every day, even after voluntarily taking up residence in a psychiatric hospital.
Her resurgence, thanks to dedicated art experts and curators who saw an opportunity for attention-grabbing retrospectives, makes her current success all the more stirring. It does give Lenz’s movie the feeling of a positive companion piece to an exhibit rather than a fully probing work. Other voices do most of the storytelling, with Kusama herself still a somewhat mysterious magenta-wigged figure who occasionally speaks for herself (or reads a poem) when not shown hunched over her mesmerizingly arrayed surfaces.
Some details — including a strange companionship with surrealist painter Joseph Cornell, who fetishized her — leave questions more than insight. Mostly, Lenz is committed to showing as much of Kusama’s considerable output as possible, often lovingly panned over with an admiring camera. Think an exhibition program at 24 frames a second.
But “Kusama – Infinity” is also a genuinely felt portrait of the artist as a dedicated survivor, ever in service to her vision of the world and fighting for her place in it. And while Kusama-mania currently seems as endless as one of her colorful, pattern-rich artscapes, the artist herself soldiers on, one dot at a time.
‘Kusama – Infinity’
In English and Japanese with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West L.A.