The art world has a marked preference for the enfant terrible and the angry young man. Yayoi Kusama is the unusual exception. After a lifetime of swimming upstream, she has found her greatest commercial and critical success in her late eighties. Heather Lenz takes stock of the artist and her prodigious output in Kusama: Infinity, which screens during the closing gala of this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival.
There has already been at least one prior Kusama doc, Takako Matsumoto’s Near Equal Kusama Yayoi: I Love Myself, but with Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors installation breaking attendance records, the time is right for a new take on the artist. While Near Equal spent a considerable amount of time watching Kusama draw her trademark polka dots, Lenz takes a more conventional but engaging narrative approach.
Lenz understandably emphasizes all the adversity Kusama was forced to overcome, starting with the abusive mother who made her formative years so difficult. However, she received some early encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, who invited Kusama to share her studio based on one painting the teenager rather naively sent her. Unfortunately, the budding artist opted for New York instead. Quite provocatively, but convincingly, Lenz and her battery of experts suggest storied contemporary artist such as Anndy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg basically ripped off her work. Yet, she never explicitly explores the irony of the faultlessly liberal and anti-war New York art scene also proving to be so sexist and exploitative.
After returning to Japan, Kusama voluntarily checked herself into a sanitarium, where she still lives as a permanent guest, sort of like the Major in Fawlty Towers. Of course, most viewers inevitably wonder just how this arrangement works, but the film never offers those explanations. In fact, it mostly just skims the surface of Kusama’s life and career, rather than plumbing her deeper psyche. Arguably, this is a function of the ultra-guarded Kusama herself, who either established innumerable boundaries or is simply incapable of opening up to any meaningful extent.