Toward the end of “Kusama: Infinity,” the subject, now 89, tries to explain her passion to create.
“I hope the power of art can make the world more peaceful,” Yayoi Kusama says.
Until recently, however, art seems to have brought little peace to Kusama throughout her long, eventful life — at least until her last chapter. Heather Lenz’s absorbing documentary takes us from World War II-era Japan, where Kusama had a difficult relationship with her parents and first honed her anti-war impulses while sewing parachutes in a factory as a teenager, to the New York art scene of the 1960s, when Kusama struggled to get her art into exhibitions, to 1970s Japan, where as a single woman with ambition and radical ideas she was shunned, to her current status as one of the world’s most exhibited and successful living artists.
Kusama left Japan in 1958, as much to flee her family, which was pressuring her to marry and give up art, as to enter the New York art scene. At a time when it was tough to leave Japan and hard to bring money into the United States, Kusama sewed money into her kimono, and on her first day in the Big Apple she went to the top of the Empire State building and vowed to conquer New York.
That proved difficult. In the male-dominated art scene, women were never given solo exhibitions. And yet, through persistence and a strong belief in herself, she became a noted pop artist — she angrily accused Andy Warhol of stealing one of her ideas.
She was welcomed at the Brata Gallery, a cooperative that once hosted Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. She morphed from a fascination with dots in painting to soft sculpture and, in a quest to capture infinity, she became the first to create a mirrored environment.
She was also an activist, outspoken in her opposition to the Vietnam War, staging protests through the use of performance art. She was thought to be the first to perform gay weddings. But while Kusama gained some notoriety and press coverage in the United States, her work was better known in Europe, and without fully conquering New York, she headed back to Japan in 1973 to start over.
“Kusama: Infinity” is a fascinating guide to its subject and her work, but the emotional wall Kusama lives behind remains unbroken. She is a loner and a mystery.
How does she describe her own art? She says that “obsession and accumulation” are her main components.
“Accumulation means that the stars in the universe don’t exist by themselves, nor does the Earth exist by itself,” Kusama says. “It’s like when I saw (a field of) flowers — the flowers were everywhere and when I chased them I felt panicked and so overwhelmed that I wanted to eat them all.”
(At the Tivoli.)