'Kusama: Infinity': Film Review

Not just for the selfie crowd.

Heather Lenz's debut shows how long a path Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama followed before she became a global phenom.

An entertaining account of one of modern art's most unlikely success stories, Heather Lenz's Kusama: Infinity charts the many ways Yayoi Kusama was marginalized — sometimes by the prejudices of an era, sometimes thanks to her own eccentricities — before becoming, late in life, one of the world's most popular living artists. Part talent, part hustle, part pathological insistence on her own way of dealing with the world, it's an optimistic narrative with plenty of colorful guest stars and should have a slightly broader appeal than the usual art-world portrait.

Raised in Matsumoto, a Japanese city known for its namesake castle, Yayoi was making art at 10 years old — already fascinated with the polka dots that would later become a trademark. Her art-making was actively discouraged by her mother, who preferred to send the young girl off to spy while her father romanced other women. Unsurprisingly, Kusama grew up refusing the marriage proposals her family expected her to accept. She found inspiration for an unconventional life across the ocean: Out of nowhere, she wrote a letter to Georgia O'Keeffe, an aspiring female artist to an established one, asking, "Will you kindly show me the way to approach this life?"

Soon she was burning her early works and risking everything to move to New York City. The film is at its best recounting this make-or-break period, even if one suspects it could tell us much more than it does about what Kusama did to get her brightly shod foot in the door. Fellow artist Carolee Schneemann recalls that the pretty newcomer was openly seeking a male patron to facilitate her entry into the gallery world; she was also happy to send a rich new acquaintance to inquire about her work at a gallery that didn't represent her, creating the sense of a market that may not have existed.

Marketing plots make for colorful stories, but Lenz also digs into the work itself, painting it as more influential than viewers might think. More than once, she tells of Kusama exhibiting pieces that closely resembled later works for which male artists got lots of attention. Even if they're not all straightforward tales of plagiarism — Claes Oldenburg may have taken the idea of sewing the "soft sculptures" that made him famous from her, but they would have gone nowhere without the humor and poppy irony he brought to them — the stories certainly encourage some reevaluation.

Not that anybody is fretting too much today about Kusama's place in art history. Though Lenz addresses the failures and breakdowns to come, the film is eager to move toward Kusama's rediscovery, decades after her political Happenings, when retrospectives created new fans for her work. Social media, of course, eventually had much to do with this. Skeptics would say that a sizable number of Kusama's new fans don't care about art nearly as much as they do about finding a novel backdrop for their next selfie — and if that backdrop is a Kusama "Infinity Room" that multiplies the Insta-narcissist's image over and over into the horizon, so much the better. But the fickleness of fame and commerce aside, Kusama: Infinity presents a creative life that is worth exploring, even by those who've been scared away by the crowds.

Production companies: Magnolia Pictures, Tokyo Lee Productions Inc., Submarine Entertainment, Dogwoof, Parco, Dakota Group LTD
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Heather Lenz
Producers: Heather Lenz, Karen Johnson, David Koh, Dan Braun
Executive producers: Stanley Buchthal, Josh Braun, Ryan Brooks, Brandon Chen
Director of photography: Hart Perry
Editor: Keita Ideno
Composer: Allyson Newman

In English and Japanese
76 minutes