Film Review: Kusama - Infinity
By Belle McIntyre
The great irony that is the life and times of Yayoi Kusama is the fact that for the majority of her life she created ceaselessly making art as an outsider, overlooked and dismissed by the art establishment. Although there were fellow artists who admired her work, were inspired by it, and in some cases, appropriated her ideas. Cases in point being her soft sculpture which Claes Oldenberg saw and then began reshaping his career using that medium. After Warhol saw some of her paintings in which she used repetitions of images as background, he began to do the same. Her journey was unlikely and uphill and she began it against the wishes of her parents and against all the odds.
Born in the provincial town of Matsumoto, Japan in 1929, she grew up in wartime, which affected all Japanese people in often traumatic ways. Although her family was comfortable, they still suffered rationing, mandatory stints in factories helping out the war effort, and the horror of bombs falling on their cities. Her parents were strict and extremely conservative and the only nod to their daughters wishes to be an artist was to send her to art school to learn traditional forms of Japanese art. By the time she convinced her parents to give her enough money to move to New York City in 1958 she was almost 30 and had received encouragement from Georgia O’Keefe, to whom she had written and sent pictures of her work. She spoke little English and does not appear to have had any significant connections.
Nonetheless, the diminutive Kusama managed to find her way into the thick of the turbulent 60’s art world, as a performance artist and activist, wearing nothing or outlandish costumes and brightly colored wigs and garnering a lot of attention by public displays of self-promotion or protest. News of her shenanigans in America was most mortifying to her parents back home and her school in Matsumoto excised her name from the school’s alumni list. Through all of this period, she was working furiously creating large-scale paintings as well as extraordinary works made out of stuffed pieces of fabric which were attached together to form huge and strangely intriguing objects. She had also begun her infinity series which continued for years as huge canvases with meticulously painted lines and brush strokes. All of this gained attention but did not result in significant sales or championing of the art world heavyweights. She became so despondent that she twice attempted suicide. One of the highlights of her early New York years was a deeply felt platonic love affair with the reclusive Joseph Cornell. Otherwise, there is no mention of any personal relationships. She ultimately gives up her New York adventure and returns to Japan in 1973.
Feeling fairly depressed and defeated, Kusama checked herself into Selwa Hospital for the Mentally Ill, as an out-patient, a place which specialized in art therapy as a treatment for patients. She also rented a studio nearby where she would go to work every day and return to sleep at the hospital. This arrangement continues to this day and she continues to produce art at a prodigious rate. Some of her early hospital paintings do seem to illustrate some dark wartime memories, with spiky humanoid figures and dense layers of disturbing images suggesting a therapeutic process.
But finally her star has risen and she is at last being recognized as the phenomenal artist that she is. Museums all over the world are having retrospectives of her vast and multidisciplinary work. Her signature dot paintings were like an invasion when the Whitney gave her a show in New York City. The dots appeared on store fronts on Fifth Avenue and unexpected locations around town. And the lines were long and continuous to see the Infinity Room, which is a magical reflecting space with myriad dots of lights which appear to go on into infinity. She has become the most viewed artist in history in her eighties. She still wears funky brightly-colored wigs and outlandish clothes, and she is undiminished in her energy and enthusiasm for her work.
It is a triumphant ending to a life of strife and struggle for an artist this unique. The very definition of an “Outsider” artist, an unfortunate term for intuitive, usually unschooled, and often mentally unbalanced artists, Kusama reported having vividly realized hallucinations at the age of ten, which involved being ecstatically swallowed up by flowers and resulted in a series of paintings which were inspired by the sensation of disappearing. It is easy to imagine that much, if not all of her work is the product of a fevered imagination. And yet, it feels so joyful in an acid-trippy way. Her giant polka-dotted mushrooms and pumpkin-shaped sculptures appear in outdoor spaces all over the world and have a quirky charm. The colorful dot paintings feel exuberant and the infinity paintings suggest a serene dreamlike sky or landscape. Even her hometown Matsumoto has opened a museum which will have a permanent collection of her art. This is a fascinating film about a really extraordinary person who just kept on keeping on and doing the only thing she felt made any sense. It is seriously inspiring and well worth seeing.
A trailer for the film can be seen here.