February 4, 2023

“Kusama: Infinity” Reveals the Artist Behind the Wildly Popular Art


Yayoi Kusama has been making art since the 1950s. But it’s only in the last few years that the octogenarian Japanese artist’s mirrored rooms and hypnotic paintings of weblike nets and dots have catapulted her into the art world stratosphere.

Her blockbuster traveling retrospective — “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” — might just be the most Instagramed art exhibition ever, the mesmirizing installations the irresistable social media fodder

Now a new documentary, “Kusama — Infinity,” thoroughly charts the life and career of the 89-year-old Japanese artist who spent decades in obscurity yet last year setting the record for the highest amount paid for a work by a living female artist.

[su_pullquote]Join Sightlines at the 3:40 p.m. Sept. 30 screening of “Kusama — Infinity.” Meet us in the lobby before the film and try the special “Infinitea” cocktail crafted by the AFS Cinema. Get tickets here.[/su_pullquote]

Directed by Heather Lenz, the film offers abundant insight and background though it is far more traditional — at least in style and format — than its subject.

Austin Film Society screens “Kusama — Infinity” Sept. 28-Oct. 4. Sightlines is the media sponsor.

And that’s just fine. Kusama’s novel-worthy life and deeply psychological and personal art-making practice don’t need embellishments.

Born in 1929 to a well-off yet deeply unhappy family in provinicial Japan, Kusama faced retribution from her mother who disapproved of art-making. Instead, her mother dispatched the young girl to spy on her philandering father. And when she saw her father in flagrante delicto, the experience Kusama with a permanent distaste for sex. (She shared that distaste, apparently, with one of her beaus, the American artist Joseph Cornell, who had an intense infatuation with Kusama during the years she lived and worked in New York.)

Nevertheless Kusama had the financial means, and the moxie, to extratricate herself from her provincial home and got herself to New York by 1957. As creatively invigorating as New York was, she encountered an art world dominated by white men — and Abstract Expressionism — who regarded an Asian woman as little more than an exotic. (The film points out that no matter their work, women artists in the 1950s were only included in group shows; solo exhibitions were the exclusive the domain of men.)

Hertz’s film makes the case that there were plenty in the art world ready to imitate Kusama’s style, though.

Claes Oldenburg is shown to have stolen the idea of making soft sculptures from her (Oldenburg’s wife reportedly apologized to Kusama). And Warhol nicked ideas too.

In the 1960s, Kusama staged increasingly elaborate happenings in very conspicuous public places such as Central Park or the Museum of Modern Art, usually parading nude.

By the early 1970s, the always mentally-fragile Kusama, exhausted by from several breakdowns, returned to Japan, opting to live in a hospital for the mentally ill where she still resides today, despite her art world celebrity.

A thorough portrait with valuable critical commentary interspered, “Kusama — Infinity” convinces that despite her enormously high profile, contemporary art history is still catching up with the inimitable Yayoi Kusama.

Yayoi Kusama in the 1960s. (Photo by Harrie Verstappin/courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

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