The ’60s New York art scene was mean to Yayoi Kusama

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Kusama: Infinity
Broadway Theatre

Opens May 19
3 out of 5

Unless you’re familiar with the 1960s New York art scene, the name Yayoi Kusama probably doesn’t mean much. There’s a good reason for that: Kusama, though famous, faced a level of gender and racial discrimination that probably stopped her from being almost as famous as Warhol. A Japanese immigrant with nothing but drive and talent, she ran a gamut of adversity from a monstrous mother to mental illness. The fact her name was all but scrubbed from the history of pop art until recently doesn’t diminish her influence.

The fascinating documentary Kusama: Infinity explores pivotal moments in her life: her escape from Matsumoto, Japan, where she was practically an outcast, her rough-and-tumble early days in the Big Apple, her rise to prominence, and an inevitable fall from grace. The film greatly benefits from interviews with Kusama herself (89-years-old and still a force to reckon with) and her stunning work.

A multihyphenated artist, Yayoi Kusama has worked in just about every discipline, from painting to poetry to film. Her most notable art, though, is conceptual: she developed the net-painting style — which includes her recognizable “polka dots”— and successfully broke the boundaries of the canvas with mirrors and light. Recognition mattered to Kusama and she took every slight to heart. The obsessive-compulsive disorder that helped her artistically was also the bane of her existence, and doubtless played a part in her suicidal tendencies and lengthy stints in mental hospitals.

This is the problem with this otherwise compelling doc. Several aspects of Kusama’s life are paid lip service but needed further development — especially considering Kusama: Infinity is 80 minutes. The subject could have sustained a far longer examination. But if all you need is an introduction and are willing to do the legwork afterwards, Kusama: Infinity does the trick.