Get ready for a bit of old-fashioned feminist outrage in this celebratory documentary, “Kusama – Infinity,” yet rein in your rage and you’ll notice a sly contradiction between the visual and the aural. Director/writer Heather Lenz doesn’t always ask the tough questions or provide historic perspective. Still, “Kusama – Infinity” is a bittersweet documentary about the triumph of persistence, how an outcast became the most popular living artist in the world.
Last year, an exhibit of her Infinity Room tickets at The Broad in Santa Monica sold out in two hours. MOMA’s store sells Kusama skatesboards ($200), dotted pumpkin purses ($100 to $500) and kokeshi dolls ($44).
That’s astounding when you consider how art history has been taught. For decades, college art history survey courses relied on H.W. Janson’s “History of Art” which didn’t include women artists (but also did not mention Grant Wood or his “American Gothic”). In 1985, a group of anonymous female artist activists (Guerrilla Girls) infamously began protesting for inclusion of women and minorities at art museums while wearing gorilla masks.
Kusama also protested in her day but anonymity wasn’t for her. The documentary begins with a quote Kusama: “From the point of view of one who creates, everything is a gamble, a leap into the unknown.”
The greatest leap for Kusama was leaving Japan and traveling to New York City. The youngest of four children, Kusama Yayoi was born in 1929 into a family whose business was commercial production of seeds. Her name fully embraces horticultural aspirations. Her surname means “grassy space” and her first name means “spring” (the traditional word for the third month). Her mother’s family was prestigious enough in the rural castle town of Matsumoto that her father came in as a mukoyōshi–taking name of his wife’s family. The movie tells us that the father had affairs because he was “powerless” but surely during that time period, many men in Japan and elsewhere, men had affairs–emasculated by the family or not.
As a child, Kusama had a mysterious trauma in the flower fields and that coupled with her father’s womanizing ways seems to have created a revulsion for sex, setting up repetitive, obsessional imagery that would resurface later.
Early on, Kusama knew she wanted to be an artist: “My wish was to be a painter, so I started making a lot of art from the age of 10,” but her mother tried to prevent Kusama from drawing. Yet there might have been historic and economic factors. When Kusama was 10 in 1939, Imperial Japan had already invaded Manchuria in 1931 and China in 1937 (Nanking Massacre). In 1939, Germany invaded Poland; Germany and Japan became Axis Powers in 1940. Kusama’s wartime experiences working in a factory are alluded to much later, when the documentary discusses her anti-Vietnam War protests.
After the World War II, Kusama was expected to marry, but instead wrote to George O’Keefe. O’Keefe was living in New Mexico and encouraged Kusama who traveled to New York in 1958 where she struggled in an art world dominated by white male artists. She found that her original ideas were poached by artists like James Rosenquist (1933-2017), Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Claes Oldenburg (1929). The documentary suggests that Oldenburg’s soft sculptures were inspired by Kusama’s phallic couch, (“Accumulation, No. 1”). Her Infinity Mirror room concept began with “Phalli’s Field” 1965 and “Peep Show Mirror” 1966, but she was almost immediately copied by Lucas Samaras (1936) seven months later.
Still, one sometimes forgets that art galleries are businesses. Oldenburg’s fluffy pillow calendar or an over-sized hamburger might make great Kodak moments. Both are inoffensive objects, but those phallic furniture and boats where would they belong? The Korean penis park (Haeshindang Park)? Some darkly lit crassly naughty sex club? Kusama’s “Phalli’s Field” was filled with white penis pillows dotted with red…if that didn’t make you think venereal disease your thoughts are admirably pure and G-rated. There’s also no mention of Hollywood-born and raised Jann Haworth who also developed soft sculpture (and did her own sewing unlike Oldenburg who had a “factory” in his studio). Haworth is still alive and most famous for her work with her then-husband Peter Blake on the 1967 sleeve design for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Of these white male artists who took her ideas and found greater fame, two still survive, but Lenz doesn’t allow either Oldenburg or Samaras in on this conversation. Moreover, another famous Japanese-born female artist was in New York as well: Yoko Ono. How Ono struggled in the NYC art scene might served as a measure for Kusama’s choices
Now as a flamboyantly dressed elderly woman, Kusama focuses on dots and plants. One could talk about fertility, seeds and the birds and bees, but her art is now clean enough to innocently delight to children. Describing her creative impulse, Kusama said, “I convert the energy of life into dots of the universe and that energy along with love flies into the sky.” As her hometown now celebrates her art and just this year, a Kusama museum opened in Tokyo, love is finally flying toward Kusama.
“Kusama – Infinity” was briefly at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse. In Japanese and English with English subtitles.