2018, NR, 76 min. Directed by Heather Lenz.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Sept. 28, 2018
What’s the difference between appropriation and theft? It often doesn’t matter to artists (especially those who do the latter), only to the critics who lamentedly end up telling the tale. Yayoi Kusama, the visionary Japanese artist who rose to prominence in New York City in the Sixties, and who subsequently fell into obscurity soon after – well, she ended up exiling herself back to Japan, only to be “rediscovered” in the late Eighties as a genius. It is an old, tired tale.
I use those quotes with irony, as Kusama, an immensely talented artist, was an innovative and provocative voice whose work was often stolen by the likes of Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg. Heather Lenz’s new doc seeks to right those wrongs, and in the process, celebrate and provide context to the life of this incredibly complex person. And it does that, in the way that the best biopic docs do, with access to the artist, now 89, and various museum curator talking heads espousing her brilliance. “The system is set up to support white male artists who carry on the tradition of modernism,” is one such note, and one that unfortunately, Kusama was thrust into; as was her work, which was a fascinating blend of repetitive dots and images but also used nakedness to protest the Vietnam War. They were incendiary flashpoints on the art scene during the reign of Warhol and pop art.
Moving back to Japan in the Seventies, much was made of Kusama eventually housing herself in a psychiatric hospital. But I’ve often found that it matters less where you lay your head each night than what you do with it when you’re awake. Kusama’s paint-splattered jeans, her continual need to create, and her singular vision are concepts that Lenz gets through with her very loving film. Kusama’s 1989 retrospective secured her an altar among those white male artists, and she is now one of the top-selling living artists in the world. But it seems a little too late for this fierce presence, a woman who had her vision stolen multiple times but still carried on, driven by a need to create these wonderful worlds into a world that often neglected her. And the irony is not lost on her. Nor should it be on you.