“Infinity Net,” “Accumulation No. 1” and “Dots Obsession” are just a few pieces that are immediately connected to prominent artist Yayoi Kusama. Whether or not you consider yourself an art buff, you are likely familiar with Kusama’s singular and hypnotic works.
Her seemingly endless mirrored rooms, polka-dotted pumpkin sculptures and surreal paintings have found their way into exhibitions and social media feeds across the world. Just ask the 65,000 visitors who waited outside the David Zwirner art gallery on W. 19th street for hours in the dead of New York winter to stand in Kusama’s installation titled “Infinity Nets” for a mere 60 seconds.
But as Heather Lenz’s recently released documentary “Kusama – Infinity” reveals, these now ubiquitous works of art are the product of an artist who spent most of her life forced out of her conservative hometown, out of the established art world and out of public favor.
“Kusama – Infinity,” which opened at Film Forum on Sept. 7, chronicles Kusama’s turbulent life and artistic journey. As a Japanese woman, Kusama struggled to gain recognition for her artwork in an industry that favored white men. While artists like Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol garnered acclaim for works allegedly inspired by Kusama, she was left in the dust.
As a child, Kusama’s mother would take her daughter’s paints away and Kusama was later greeted with indifference and disregard by her contemporaries.
Despite the continued disrespect, she showed up to galleries and art shows without invitation. She spoke for her own work. She fought tirelessly to become a part of the world that had rejected her. Eventually, and only in recent years, she got the recognition she deserved and then some. Kusama is now the most popular living female artist and “Kusama – Infinity” is her long overdue portrait.
Beyond crafting a detailed illustration of Kusama’s life, the documentary truly excels in its thoughtful study of Kusama’s artistic preoccupations. The artist had a traumatic childhood and has continuously struggled with her mental health. Much of her work is graphically simple and shared online without much context, making it easy to appreciate the work on a surface level. However, Lenz goes beyond the aesthetic of the works and tells a story of a woman attempting to turn her trauma into art.
We are inundated with images of Kusama’s work across many social media platforms but only on rare occasions are we provoked to actually dig deeper into their meanings or view them as more than a joyful and Instagrammable experience. What the film so brilliantly tells us is that these works of art are not merely photogenic installations but expressions of a unique, fabricated universe that is part of Kusama’s mission to turn the energy of life into art. They are our portals into her turbulent and obsessive mind, and we as an audience have fallen for her vision of chaotic infinity.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 10 print edition. Email Taylor Stout at [email protected]