I came to the Kusama-Infinity film by Heather Lenz a skeptic and emerged something of a convert.
There isn’t one city I’ve visited in the last years that has not had a Kusama retrospective recently completed, up, or on the horizon. Museums fight to get a Kusama show, attendance increases dramatically when they land one. Who does not covet a selfie with a Kusama?
It was not always thus. Lenz’s film makes a strong case for another Kusama, the outsider who came to the US in 1958 with money sewn into her kimono at a time when Japan was stifling and reactionary after the war. Her family—in the seed and flower business—did not recognize or support her talent. Her father was a philanderer and filled her mother with anger which spilled over into the children. To escape this toxicity was bold and rare.
New York held its own challenges. Kusama was neither Ab Ex nor Minimalist nor Figurative. Maybe she had a little bit of Pollock’s energy—less drippy- and Agnes Martin’s precision—less restrained. She could not get arrested (later this would change). But Kusama had extraordinary belief in herself and her work. She was very striking. She recognized early on the value of documenting her work, and her person. Artfully draped over her or standing amongst her creations, she is every bit as arresting.
Finally, in some smaller shows, other artists began to see her value and innovation. There’s no doubt that Oldenburg—stuffing—Samaras—mirrors—and Warhol—immersive patterned installations—and later Hirst-dots--were inspired by her. Stella craved and eventually bought an early yellow work for 75 dollars. Cornell had a crush on her, called her “my princess’ even though he was celibate (as was she.)
She cycled through obsessions with dots, infinity nets, balls, stuffed fingers, mirrors, naked happenings and protests. She was against the war in Vietnam. She did get arrested. I could not help but think of Yoko on a parallel path at this point only instead in bed with a Beatle. Kusama was in bed with her dots and fingers. I also glimpsed affinities with Rei Kawakubo. And with Ruth Asawa, another outsider who marched to her own net-like drums.
Finally she moved back to Japan and eventually she had to check herself into a psychiatric facility, where she still sleeps each night. Being obessesive compulsive and celibate? I don’t know how she was able to survive.
“When I see dots my eyes get brighter”, she now says with her signature red wig. Alas, though I very much appreciate the earlier work, mine now glaze over when I see the red and white dots. But I’m an admirer of the grit and determination with which she has approached her life and practice.
The film is in general release