In the afterglow of the most Instagrammable art exhibition ever, “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” — a show that drew nearly 160,000 D.C. visitors to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden last year, and is currently a popular draw at the Cleveland Museum of Art — you may have found yourself wanting to know more about the enigmatic maker of eye-popping work.
To satisfy that craving, there’s “Kusama — Infinity,” a new documentary that charts the life and career of the 89-year-old Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, who is best known for her hypnotic paintings of weblike nets and dots, in addition to the immersive mirror installations that are featured in her current touring show. Directed by Heather Lenz, the film offers insight and eye candy, despite the fact that it is far more traditional — in style and format — than its subject.
To live up to Kusama herself would be a tall order.
Famous for residing in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital since 1977, Kusama has always mined her fragile mental state for her art, infusing her obsessive drawings, watercolors, collages, paintings, sculpture, installations and performances — created over many decades — with a sense of a lost soul adrift in a chaotic universe. In fact, one of the film’s interview subjects — who include collectors, curators, dealers, art historians and friends of the artist — refers to Kusama’s creative practice as a form of “managing madness.”
It’s a lovely (and apt) turn of phrase, about an artist whose true medium might be the expression of her state of mind, whatever physical forms that might take.
For the most part, “Kusama — Infinity” tells its unconventional story rather conventionally, beginning with the artist’s almost cliched childhood: Her mother disapproved of art-making, scarring her daughter. Other psychic damage is said to have resulted from Kusama encountering her philandering father in flagrante delicto — leaving her with a permanent distaste for sex. (She shared that distaste, apparently, with her beau, the oddball American artist Joseph Cornell, whom she briefly dated during the years she lived and worked in New York.)
The film touches on many things: Kusama’s multiple suicide attempts, scandals involving naked art happenings, professional setbacks because of sexism and racism. Claes Oldenburg is said to have stolen the idea of making soft sculptures from her, and it is implied that Lucas Samaras ripped off one of her earliest mirrored rooms, made in the 1960s, with one of his own.
But in addition to focusing on such shocking and lurid biographical details, “Kusama — Infinity” also includes thoughtful analysis of the work, helping viewers understand what it’s trying to say and why it matters.
Kusama was the first woman to represent Japan in the Venice Biennale, in 1993, and is the most successful living female artist today. Despite her own worst impulses as a publicity junkie, and despite the easily digestible nature of her work, the film makes clear that there is a powerful quality of healing to her art, both for the artist and the viewer.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nudity. In Japanese and English with subtitles. 80 minutes.