It would seem almost impossible to tell the story of world’s most successful living artist and the top-selling female artist in history in roughly 80 minutes, but the new documentary Kusama: Infinity covers a great deal of ground in a short amount of time, thanks to brisk and lively storytelling from first-time feature director Heather Lenz. As the film explains, the now-89-year-old Yayoi Kusama had a traumatic childhood, punctuated by knowing early on that she wanted to be an artist, yet being strongly discouraged by her parents. But a calling is a calling, and as a young woman, she moved to the United States to realize her dream, which turned out to be yet another struggle against sexism, racism and a male-dominated art world that was achingly slow to let women showcase their work outside of group shows.
Using an ample amount of archival footage and new interviews with Kusama, other artists, and art historians, the film moves through her early years as a pen pal with Georgia O’Keefe, who shares very practical and prophetic advice about the struggles Kusama would likely have as a female artist. Shortly after moving the New York City, Kusama became a muse of sorts (non-sexual, as she’s quick to point out) to fellow artist Joseph Cornell while she built up an arsenal of work that eventually caught the eye of the mainstream at an achingly slow and steady pace. She’s best known for a variety of themes and installations, including her obsessional devotion to dots, mirrored installations, and soft sculptures that look both plush and phallic. The film captures a miserable time in her life when artists like Warhol and others essentially stole her groundbreaking ideas and popularized them in ways she wasn’t allowed to because of her gender.
She eventually moved into film and performance art (presumably harder to copy by other artists) that she weaved into activism (particularly against he Vietnam War) and events where everyone would get naked, and she would use their bodes and canvases. The nudity caused a great scandal in her native Japan, and when she moved back there in frustration, she was treated as a pariah and couldn’t get any work. But time and tastes eventually led to a massive rediscovery of the artist in more recent years, and the film ends with various shots of galleries around the world with lines around the block to see her exhibits.
Kusama: Infinity is part profile, part celebration; director Lenz does her best to not only walk through the artist’s life but dig into her inspirations, from both painful and happier times. Since Kusama is something of shy and quiet person, the interviews with her are not always illuminating, but you can sense her desire to finally tell her story and be recognized in a way that eluded her for decades. Unsung artists will likely benefit and be moved by her story the most, but anyone struggling to be recognized in a creative field will recognize her tale as well.
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