Film & Television

Kusama: Infinity — A Tale of Perseverance
(and Polka Dots)

Director, producer and screenwriter Heather Lenz knows something about perseverance paying off. She spent 17 years developing her impressive new documentary Kusama: Infinity. Her subject, however, takes the concept of perseverance to a whole other level. Yayoi Kusama waited most of her life for the recognition, fame, and fortune that she sought when she first came to New York in 1958. Today, at age 89, she is the top-selling female artist in the world. But, as the film methodically explains, her rise was anything but meteoric. In fact, Kusama beat many, and virtually impossible, odds to arrive where she is today.

The artist’s intriguing story begins in World War II Japan. Born the youngest to an affluent family in Matsumoto, she worked in a parachute factory as a young woman. From an early age, she was fascinated with art. However, her dreams of becoming a famous painter were belittled by her parents, who wanted her to study etiquette and to marry well. In a bizarre twist, she was also enlisted by her jealous mother to spy on her adulterous father. These glimpses of extramarital carnality, at such an impressionable age, developed into an aversion to sex that stayed with Kusama throughout her life.

Artistic encouragement came from an unlikely source. The young Kusama found the works of Georgia O’Keeffe and wrote to the artist, pleading for advice about how to become a successful painter. Much to her surprise, O’Keeffe wrote back. “I couldn’t believe my luck!” Kusama remembers. “She had been kind enough to respond to the sudden outburst of a lowly Japanese girl she’d never met or heard of before.” O’Keeffe did offer kind words, but also warned the aspiring artist that succeeding in the American art world, especially as a young woman, would be a great challenge.

Regardless of this warning, Kusama was not to be dissuaded. In 1957, she was able to get a passport, burned most of her early work, and sewed money into the lining of her kimonos (to get around strict post-war travel restrictions). She arrived first in Seattle, but made her way to New York. There, she was determined to do whatever it took to be seen. Lenz’s film alludes to shameless self-promotion and wealthy male benefactors, whom Kusama seduced and used to open doors.

Her first pieces to gain notice were “Infinity Net” paintings, abstract and richly textured oil paintings of seemingly endless loops. She described these as, “White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against the pitch black of nothingness.” One of the many art world figures interviewed by Lenz recalls paying $75 for one, an outrageous sum at the time and one that he had to pay off in installments. In 2014, one of her “Infinity Nets” paintings sold for a record-breaking $7.1 million at Christie’s.

Kusama moved into soft sculpture, combined with multiple images, and eventually into more experiential mirrored rooms. Although she was becoming a recognized figure of New York’s modern art scene, she had to struggle with sexism and racism, and the unfair advantage assigned to white, male artists.

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