With a shock of vivid red hair and her collection of bright colored dresses, the quiet presence of Yayoi Kusama never fails to make an impression.
Her artwork stretches beyond the popular infinity mirrored rooms and the bright pop art Instagram posts fans may recognize. Fame came to her late in life, and for decades Kusama’s art was ridiculed, particularly by male artists.
In director Heather Lenz’s extensive new documentary, “Kusama: Infinity,” out Sept. 7, the attention shifts from the art to the artist. Through lengthy interviews with Kusama, experts, friends and admirers, Lenz details Kusama’s journey.
As a young girl, Kusama was caught in an unhappy home, with a mother who would routinely destroy her daughter’s art and a father who regularly cheated on her mother. She left Japan for New York City for the exciting burgeoning art scene in New York City’s Greenwich Village but found almost as much rejection from white male colleagues as she did with her parents. She fought mental illness as she was pushing to create more and becoming more politically active in the ’60s.
After so many years of rejection by the mainstream art culture, Kusama retreated to Tokyo to seek treatment at a psychiatric hospital, and she used her art as therapy. Eventually, she set up a studio close by the hospital.
The now 89-year-old artist continues to create at a prolific rate. What the art world ignored decades before, it now celebrates, and Kusama’s popularity has skyrocketed since the rediscovery of her work in the late ’80s and early ‘90s.
Lenz had been a fan of Kusama since she was an undergraduate art student.
“Back then, we had textbooks where we studied the history of art,” she says. “After a couple of textbooks like that, I had learned about maybe five women. But in a sculpture class, one of my professors showed a slide of her work, and I was just interested in it instantly. When I read about her, I instantly recognized that she was a very compelling artist, not only because she made great art, but because her story was so unusual.”
“Kusama: Infinity” is the product of Lenz’s years of research, production and filming interviews in the United States and abroad. She’s been working on the project since the early 2000s.
Although Lenz originally intended to make a narrative feature on Kusama’s story, she accumulated so many archival resources and interviews, the documentary became a natural extension of her efforts. Yet even as Kusama’s fame rose, Lenz ran into some of the old racist and sexist attitudes that had written off her work.
“One of the people I pitched it to expressed their shock that I was trying to make a film about a ‘foreign female,’” she says.
In addition to rich interviews with Kusama, Lenz dove into the variety and depth of her work, which in addition to infinity rooms, include painting, sculpting, filmmaking, fashion, performance art and poetry.
“Some of my favorite art is actually her collages from the time period when she returned to Japan,” she says. “That’s some of her lesser-known [work], but I think it’s absolutely amazing and very poetic. Basically, all she had was some glue, some paints and some magazines and then she turned it into this amazing art.”
“The thing I’m happiest about is that the film shows how much tenacity Kusama had, how hard she had to fight and that no one handed her anything,” Lenz says. “She had to work for the attention that she got. It wasn’t easy for her and she didn’t give up.”
Lenz hopes Kusama can gain the name recognition that so many of her male contemporaries have enjoyed. “She’s a woman who’s exhibited so much tenacity and worked so hard to get to where she is,” she says. “I hope that she can be a role model for other people who have a big dream they’re trying to pursue. It’s not always so easy. You have to work and fight for it and hopefully, the world catches up with you.”
“Kusama: Infinity” opens in theaters Sept. 7.