Film & Television

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

In fact, in Kusama: Infinity, we hear a compelling case against three major artists who seem to have admired Kusama’s work to the point of plagiarism. Andy Warhol commented on her use of repeating image wallpaper and then used a similar approach months later. Claes Oldenberg seems to have adopted her at-the-time groundbreaking soft sculptures for his own work. And, Lucas Samaras confused inspiration with imitation when he showed his own mirrored rooms. In each case, the male artist was lauded for his work, while Kusama’s actual innovations were forgotten. In that final instance, when Samaras unveiled his now famous “Room No. 2,” Kusama made her first attempt at suicide by jumping out her studio window.

Frustrated, perhaps, by the unfairness she was encountering in the art world, Kusama moved into “happenings.” Most of these included a combination of public nudity and the infinite colorful dots for which she is now most famous. Despite her own asexuality, she saw the human body as something inherently beautiful and precious that was being destroyed in Viet Nam. Kusama soon became better known for her performance art than for her paintings.

In the 1970s, Kusama, suffering from depression, moved back to Japan even though her conservative family was so embarrassed by her that her mother is quoted as saying it would have been better had she never been born. She was cast as a “national disgrace.” She continued to create however, even as she continued to struggle with her mental health. Kusama eventually checked herself into a Tokyo mental hospital, where she continues to live today, setting up a studio a couple of blocks away.

The tide turned for the artist in 1989 when the art world began re-examining her body of work. A significant solo exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Arts in New York was soon followed by the unprecedented honor of being the sole artist to represent Japan at the Venice Biennial, an event she had unofficially “crashed” nearly thirty years earlier. During the next two decades, her work was acquired by major museums and collectors. Exhibits sold out around the world, and she received prestigious awards. Last year, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors opened at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC and was seen by nearly 160,000 visitors. It will travel throughout the United States through 2019. Nearing age 90, Kusama continues to create art every day. “I hope the power of art can make the world more peaceful,” she says. The market for her work shows no signs of slowing down and neither does the artist. “I’m old now, but I am still going to create more work and better work. More than I have in the past. My mind is full of paintings.”

Lenz first became aware of Kusama while she was studying art history and fine arts in the early 1990s. “When I was first exposed to her work, there was only one catalog on her, which is hard to believe these days. I was instantly aware that her contributions to the American art world hadn’t been properly understood or recognized. When I found out she was living in a psychiatric hospital, I also thought she was just someone who had a very complex life. I started working on a script about Kusama while I pursued an MFA in film, in 2001. But the odds of coming straight out of school and getting to direct a big-budget period piece on a woman artist were not that great, especially as a female director. Because of that, and because she was still alive and able to tell her story in her own words, I decided I would make a documentary instead, never imagining that it would take so long.”

Indeed, had it not taken so long, Lenz’s documentary would tell a very different story. Even today, while she is arguably the most famous living female artist, there is much about Kusama that remains hidden. At more than one point in the film, the artist or one of the many subjects Lenz interviews, refers to some early trauma that may have happened in a field of flowers. It was the genesis of what Kusama entitled her art of “self-obliteration,” but it’s never fully explained. She had a short-lived relationship with the reclusive collage artist Joseph Cornell, but it feels oddly incomplete when recounted in the film. Although her mental illness is mentioned matter-of-factly many times, we never hear from a medical professional or get any semblance of a diagnosis.

This may be the biggest mystery of all. So much of Kusama’s recent and current work is bright, colorful, filled with joy. Although we never get the sense that the artist herself feels joyful, despite her bright red wig and polka-dotted dress. She speaks, not often and indirectly, to Lenz’s camera, but expresses herself more often with her art or with bits of poetry or song. However, while we don’t get a clear picture of what goes on in the artist’s mind, Lenz has put together a remarkable catalog of her work. The art is shown sumptuous and larger than life, and it’s clear that the filmmaker is fascinated by and adores it.

Yayoi Kusama’s story could easily have been tragic. It’s only in the last decades of her 65-year career that her work has been met with the admiration it deserves.

“But, I’m not dying yet,” she assures us (and, perhaps, herself). “I think I can live another 20 years.

 

 

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