Film

To Infinity and Beyond, Yayoi Kusama Grapples With Conventions

A new film tells the story of Yayoi Kusama’s reckoning with her own demons and those of the artworld.

Yayoi Kusama next to her “Dot Car” (1965), from Kusama-Infinity, (photo by Harrie Verstappen, courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Visiting the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the late 60s, the Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama is well-known for having asked, “What is modern here? I don’t see it.” By this time, she had moved to New York, survived a suicide attempt, and crashed the 1966 Venice Biennale where she, uninvited, covered the Italian Pavilion with reflective spheres made of plastic. The installation was called “Narcissus Garden” and Kusama stood amidst it in a kimono, with her signature bangs and heavily lined eyes, selling each sphere for $2 to passersby. The subversive act of an uninvited Japanese artist selling her art for cheap did not go down with the officials and she was promptly asked to leave. She only had one question, “Why can’t I sell my art like ice creams or hot dogs?”

Heather Lenz’s recent documentary, Kusama-Infinity explores Yayoi Kusama’s life, art, and her incessant struggle to be seen, to be respected, and to be given her due. It obviously tells the story of her life but also goes beyond the biographical timelines to peek into the real person behind the woman who sits facing the camera in a bright red polka dotted dress with a shock of red hair. It describes the woman behind the activism and the nude protests, which were often dismissed as gimmicks.

Her life is a flurry of emotionally charged moments. As a child, Kusama would draw very fast so that she could finish a piece before her mother snatched it away. When her desire to create art got unmanageable, her mother agreed to send her to art school only if Kusama promised to attend etiquette school — a promise she would eventually break. Her father, whose family owned a large seed business in Matsumoto City, would have several affairs and her mother would often send Kusama to spy on him. During World War II, she would sit and sew parachutes for the Japanese troops. From childhood onward, Kusama was forced to do things she did not want to. In 1955, she wrote a letter to Georgia O’Keefe admiring her work and asking for guidance. When O’Keefe finally replied, Kusama was ready to leave for New York City. She burned around 2000 of her drawings saying to herself that she would go on to produce much better art. With dollar notes sewn into her kimono — to avoid custom hassles, Kusama arrived in New York in 1958.

Yayoi Kusama, “Infinity Mirrored Room-Love Forever” (1966/1994), installation view, YAYOI KUSAMA, Le Consortium, Dijon, France, 2000, (© Yayoi Kusama, courtesy of David Zwirner, NewYork; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai; Victoria Miro, London; YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.)

In the New York art scene, amidst a sea of white, male artists, Kusama was doubly marginalized for being a Japanese woman. She arrived at a time when women’s art was only displayed as a part of group shows. Recounting those days, Kusama (now 89) breaks down on screen, remembering how poor she was. She drew and painted every day and networked aggressively and ceaselessly. When her work was shown at the Braga Gallery, Donald Judd called her an “original painter” in his review. It was Judd with whom Kusama lugged a heavy armchair down the streets of Manhattan. This furniture would go on to form the base of her soft sculpture “Accumulation No. 1.” It is around this time that artist Frank Stella bought a painting of hers for $75. This was after repeated attempts at bringing the price down failed.

Kusama’s is the story of many female artists who achieve cult status and see their ideas adopted by more famous, white, male artists, but without the cache of critical praise. Shortly after Kusama’s 1964 One Thousand Boats Show at Gallery: Gertrude Stein, where she plastered the walls of the gallery with photos of the art piece, Andy Warhol began plastering the walls of his shows with vibrant prints of his Jersey cow. Claes Oldenburg, heavily drawing from Kusama’s sculptures, began a career with his famous and profitable trademark soft sculptures. It is not surprising then that Kusama developed a sense of paranoia and was always scared of people stealing her ideas. It fed her obsessive-compulsive neurosis, which eventually compelled her to jump out of her Manhattan apartment window. Fortunately for us, she fell on a bicycle and lived to tell the tale. Her story, as narrated by Lenz, documents the immense psychological turmoil that Kusama suffered alongside describing the radicality of the artist as a vocal advocate for gay rights, a sharp critic of the Vietnam war, and the first person to have officiated at a gay wedding in New York. The visibility that she fought for herself was almost always accompanied by an insistence on visibility for other marginalized groups.

Scorned and shamed for her nude protests against the war in Vietnam, Kusama felt the need to go back to Tokyo in 1973. In 1976, she checked herself into a hospital-based mental health care facility where she continues to live today. Her studio is a few blocks away and it is here that she works.

Portrait of Yayoi Kusama in her studio (image © Yayoi Kusama, courtesy of David Zwirner, New York; Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shangha; Victoria Miro, London; YAYOI KUSAMA Inc.)

After being erased from public memory, through the 70s and 80s, Kusama’s artistic resurrection has run full circle. She represented Japan at the Venice Biennale in 1993 — 27 years after being asked to leave for staging “Narcissus Garden” (which was on display as a part of MoMA PS1’s Rockaway!). Today, as she creates her worlds of infinity, with dots, mirrors, lights, and circles, Kusama is able to claim space that has been rightfully hers for decades. When witnessing her artworks, the viewer is no longer the master of the situation as her dots, lights, and nets envelop them; she is the ultimate master of space and time. As Lenz’s camera shifts its focus from the circles she draws, to the walls she paints, to the big dots on her dress, we see that her canvases barely keep up with the speed with at which she draws, much like the times she lived through.

Kusama Infinity released nationwide on September 7. It is screening at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, West Village, Manhattan) and the Nuart Theatre (11272 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles). 

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