Seventeen years in the making, the documentary Kusama – Infinity, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, witnesses Yayoi Kusama moving from obscurity in late 1950s New York City to international fame in recent years as the top-selling female artist in the world — all while living for the last 40 years in a mental institution. More than two million visitors attended Kusama’s traveling 2013–15 Infinite Obsession retrospective in South America, with Infinity Mirrors launching last fall and gaining a similarly massive reception in the United States. Endless lines snaked around the block at her recent show at David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea. The film heightens the emotional resonance of this story with glimpses into her everyday life in Tokyo, where devoted assistants aid the 88-year-old artist in creating works composed of infinite matrixes of dots that are perfectly suited to the social media age.
Director Heather Lenz became fascinated with Kusama’s story studying art history at Kent State, where Kusama was one of the few female artists in her textbooks. After film school at University of Southern California (USC), Lenz began writing a script for a biopic before deciding on a documentary — and all before Kusama’s phenomenal success.
The film portrays the young Kusama, a daughter of wealthy seed merchants, growing up in rural Nagano Prefecture, with panning images of her from family photos in the country fields — one of her earliest visual references. As a child, Kusama discovered painting as a refuge from her parents — her mother, she has said, continuously scolded her and ripped up her drawings, and her father was a womanizer. The activity of making art also provided her relief from the dot-infused hallucinations she suffered from at an early age. Turning down arranged marriages, Kusama utterly lacked a sense of self-doubt as she pursued a career in painting. In her youth, she penned a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, who invited Kusama to her ranch in New Mexico and encouraged her to move to New York. Cue the swelling orchestra.
Narrated by interviews with curators who rediscover Kusama at inflection points in her career — with a few appearances by peers like Carolee Schneemann — we see Kusama single-mindedly pushing her way into the male-dominated art world of the late 1950s and early ’60s, sometimes to comedic effect. She aggressively pursues the Sidney Janis Gallery, the premier dealer of the late ’50s, delivering paintings to the gallery only to have them refused: Nobody had asked her to send them. She commands a solo show in 1959 at Brata, an artist-run cooperative gallery, earning substantial critical praise from Donald Judd in ARTnews. Four years later, she gets into Richard Bellamy’s famed Green Gallery with a couch-like “Accumulation” sculpture covered with protuberances, which everyone wants to sit on and discusses, but nobody buys.
Kusama is fetishized by white male artists, but her work is largely eclipsed by theirs. A much older Joseph Cornell pursues and wins her over, until his mother pours water on her, literally dousing the relationship. The film claims — with support from interviews with Kusama and art historians — that Lucas Samaras, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol copied or stole from her, and credits her for inventing infinity mirrors, soft sculptures, and room-scale wall installations. The truth may be slightly more complicated — a downtown scene in which hundreds of unacknowledged figures were doing similar work, taking inspiration and stealing from one another, especially from women — but the simplified version makes a better story.
Discouraged and depressed after years of participating in happenings and anti-war protests, Kusama attempts suicide several times before returning to Japan in 1973. A few years later, she commits herself to a mental hospital. Then — cue the swelling music again — in 1989, a retrospective at the Center for International Contemporary Arts, New York, and her appearance as Japan’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 1992 launch a new phase in her career, culminating in her current explosion of popularity.
As much as Kusama – Infinity celebrates the artist’s overcoming of personal challenges and sexual discrimination, what is most human about her story is captured by her walk to her studio with an assistant every day from the psychiatric institution where she continues to live by choice. Her work is not only innovative, but a method of healing and source of real solace.
Kusama – Infinity, directed by Heather Lenz, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The movie will be released in 2018.