by Hope Madden
There is a great deal to find frustrating in the life story of 96-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and even more to celebrate.
A maverick visual artist, Kusama is now the most financially successful female artist of all time. Given her years of struggle and the history of artists who languish during their lifetimes only to find success long after death, there is something supremely satisfying in seeing this uncommon talent live long enough to enjoy global success, both financial and critical.
The fact that she sees it from the voluntary confines of a mental institution is all the more curious and remarkable.
Co-writer/director/producer Heather Lenz’s biography follows Kusama’s story chronologically. Through interviews with the artist. and input from curators, gallery owners and friends, we’re privy to an unpleasant, and even scarring childhood. Naturally, it’s this very struggle that informed not only Kusama’s work but her work ethic, as well.
Driven and unimaginably brave, Kusama moved to the United States alone in the late 1950s seeking success. Unsurprisingly, her ambition was seen as brash and self-serving; meanwhile, her ideas were being lifted by better known (read: white, male) avant-garde artists of the era.
She created repetitive wallpaper before Warhol, who is just one of the icons of pop art to have robbed Kusama’s vision for their own inspiration.
Obviously, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and after many years of frustration followed by ostracism, Kusama has finally found global popularity.
Mirroring the tale she’s telling, co-writer/director/producer Heather Lenz’s film contains elements that frustrate, but what she celebrates more than makes up for it.
If you’re looking for clarity concerning Kusama’s biography, you’ll find little here. Whether vague stories of the artist’s childhood, brief but inarticulate tales of Kusama’s her early years in New York, or fascinating but disconnected images of relationships, Kusama: Infinity drops biographical ideas as soon as it picks them up.
What the film does convey well is the relationship between Kusama’s work and her mental state. Whether the OCD that refuses to let go of an image—hence the netting, polka dots and other repetitions in the work—to her depression and suicidal tendencies, Kusama’s mental health and art have always been tied.
The other great selling point is the sheer amount of Kusama’s artwork Lenz spills across the screen. Few artists render work so vivid, images benefitting from the very largest available canvas. Lenz piques your interest with the story of this unusual, fierce talent, but the payoff is in the color and spectacle of the art.