Amid all the dizzying, looped-and-dotted works that American director Heather Lenz has managed to capture in her new documentary Kusama—Infinity, perhaps nothing stands out so much as images of the artist today in her Shinjuku studio.
Interviewed in the film, the 89-year-old Yayoi Kusama sports a signature scarlet bobbed anime wig and hot-pink polka-dotted dress, sitting with her marker at a drawing table, and set against the recent creations on her wall—a sea of black-and-white spots and jaggedy lines.
“The boundary between Yayoi Kusama and her art is not very great,” Lenz tells the Straight from her home in Orange County. “They are one and the same.”
It was as a young student majoring in art history and fine art that Lenz was first drawn to Kusama—who stood out as one of few female artists in her textbooks. She saw an underappreciated talent whose avant-pop works anticipated Andy Warhol and others. And as Lenz dug deeper into the artist’s story, she found a woman whose struggles with a difficult childhood and mental illness made her achievements all the more remarkable.
Today, Kusama is one of the world’s most celebrated female artists, her kaleidoscopic, multiroom show Infinity Mirrors drawing throngs of visitors to galleries like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Seattle Art Museum over the past year. But when Lenz set out to make her film 17 long years ago, few had ever heard of Kusama.
“Had I won the lottery, at a certain point I might have made the film sooner,” Lenz quips. “At a certain point you put so much time and effort and money into it, it’s hard to turn back.…It’s not easy to apply for grants if an artist isn’t famous.”
Little by little, Lenz put together the funding she needed to pay for travel to Japan, to gain the rights to Kusama’s artworks, and to hire translators, because Kusama prefers to do interviews in Japanese. It wasn’t until 2007 that she was finally able to meet the artist, after studying conversational Japanese and etiquette.
“But when I met her she extended her hand and was very pleasant,” Lenz recalls. “And I told her it was the happiest day of my life.”
Kusama, who worked her way into the New York City art scene from 1957 to 1972, has continued to produce work in her Tokyo studio since the mid-1970s. It’s two blocks from the mental hospital where she lives by choice.
“To me, it is the ultimate triumph that she found this place where she’s able to focus on something she loves to do all day long,” Lenz says. Still, she wonders if Kusama would be here at all if her path had been different—an idea echoed by the small army of curators and colleagues she interviews in the film. “Had she gotten the success that her white male colleagues did sooner, would she be in this place?” she asks. “What is the impact of someone getting beaten down over and over?”
Lenz celebrates Kusama’s vast, prolific range in her film, from the polka-dot pop art and mirrored rooms she’s best known for to the phallic soft sculptures and intricate abstract paintings she created in the ’60s.
But it’s Kusama’s inner drive that speaks to her most. It’s the defiance Kusama showed as a child when her mother took her art supplies away; it’s the resolve she displayed when she first wrote a letter to Georgia O’Keeffe, who went on to give her ongoing advice; and it’s the stubbornness she summoned when she’d complain about her work getting poorer hanging space than her male colleagues’ in the 1960s.
“It’s her will and ambition and determination to succeed,” says Lenz, who clearly showed similar tenacity in getting this documentary made. “You see that in the film, when she comes to New York as a woman—and frankly, there are parallels to Hollywood right now. It’s her absolute refusal to give up and refusal to believe that she’s anything less than her male peers. She doesn’t take no for an answer.”