(TORONTO, ON) – The documentary Kusama – Infinity, written, directed, and produced by Heather Lenz, is a wonderful journey through Kusama’s early, formative, and struggling art years in Japan and New York City. The film culminates with Kusama becoming an internationally recognized contemporary, and the top selling living female, artist globally.
The documentary reveals Kusama’s story through interviews with the artist, curators at modern art museums, such as the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim, gallery owners, and friends.
Early interest in art
The documentary begins in Matsumoto City Japan, circa 1929, where Kusama was born into a wealthy family with regional domination of the agricultural seed industry. Kusama grew up in a dysfunctional family characterized by frequent arguments between her parents and also between Kusama and her mother, who aggressively disapproved of her chosen profession.
Kusama became interested in art at the age of 10, which coincided with her hallucinations. One story related in the documentary stands out.
Kusama was looking at a vase of flowers when she suddenly saw flowers everywhere; on the walls, the stairs, and into the fields where she ran for sanctuary. Kusama acknowledges that this, and other hallucinations, have fueled her creativity and art throughout her life.
After finding a book of Georgia O’Keefe paintings in a second hand store, Kusama became an admirer of O’Keeffe’s art and became convinced that a woman could have a career as a prominent artist. She moved to, and briefly stayed with O’Keefe in, New Mexico.
O’Keeffe helped Kusama move to New York in 1958 to further her career, at which time she famously burned 2,000 of her works. Kusama explained that she did it because she planned to do better work in New York City.
The New York art world of the late 1950s and 60s was male dominated, dismissive of women, and geared more toward modernism and less toward pop art, the style embraced by Kusama and her rivals, including Any Warhol.
Kusama was creatively aggressive in her approach to recognition in the male dominated art world. The documentary relates when she sent her pictures to the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York after hearing about a show being held for modern artists. Another recounted when she invited herself to the strictly by invitation only Venice Biennale in 1966.
Kusama was at the forefront of many art movements, particularly in the 60s, so much so that up-and-coming male rivals Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and Lucas Samaras took ideas from Kusama and became famous, but not her.
These disappointments triggered severe bouts of depression which eventually caused her to move back to Japan.
By 1973, Kusama had returned to Japan to start over. In the 70s and 80s Kusama had been forgotten by the New York and Japan art circles and her work had not been seen in 20 years.
She slowly built herself up in Japan, ironically showing in the venue she first exhibited in the 50s. She also checked herself into a mental health facility in Tokyo to work with a doctor who focused on art therapy. Kusama also wrote a book, poetry, and continued to create art.
She opened a work studio two blocks from the hospital, where she continues to reside in the evenings while spending her days working at her studio.
In 1989, the Yoyoi Kusama: A Retrospective was held at the Centre for International Contemporary Art in San Francisco. The retrospective delved back to her watercolours from the 50s. The retrospective reminded the world of her incredible talent and impressive body of work.
It wasn’t until a retrospective of her work, also in 1989, at New York’s Center for International Contemporary Arts that she regained her notoriety.
In 1990, her home town, Matsumoto, where she had been rejected, opened a gallery exclusively featuring Kusama’s art.
In 1993, she was invited to the Venice Biennale and install a sole show at the Japan pavilion. She was the first female Japanese artist to do this. It led to the 1998 Los Angles and New York retrospectives, Love Forever: Yoyui Kasuma 1958-1968.
Currently Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors is traveling the world. It has had an overwhelming response with exhibits being sold out long before the shows open.
The astute and timely documentary explores Kusama’s art, struggles, and life through a passionate understanding of the creative process, the quality of Kusama’s work, and her place in art history. It helps to solidify Kusama’s reputation as a genius contemporary artist and finally gives her the respect and recognition she and her incredible work have long deserved.
Kusama – Infinity is an experience that should not be missed, either in combination with the AGO exhibit Infinity Mirrors or as a standalone experience.
- Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox May 11-24
- Calgary Underground Film Festival May11 through 17
- Edmonton’s Northwest Fest on May 11
- Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Film Circuit May 11 and 12
- Vancouver’s Doxa on May 12