Yayoi Kusama, the painter, sculptor, installation maker, performer, provocateur and 89-year-old art-world it-girl, has inspired a new documentary. “Kusama: Infinity” focuses on the decades-long battle Kusama has waged against sexism, racism and mental illness in order to achieve the success she deserves. Opening Friday at the Embarcadero, it’s a slim but captivating portrait.
Filmmaker Heather Lenz combines talking-heads commentary, archival material and a bounty of artwork in this debut feature documentary. Interviewees include the Tokyo-based Kusama herself — a colorfully mysterious presence in a pop-colored wig and polka-dot attire as she reflects on her journey from the abstract-expressionist and pop-art periods to the present.
Her struggles began during childhood. Kusama recalls her mother’s abusively expressed disapproval of her artistic aspirations. Her father’s infidelities left Kusama with an aversion to sex. The trauma of World War II also darkened her perspective.
At age 10, Kusama experienced terrifying hallucinations featuring dots and flowers — elements she would later include, repeatedly, in her art.
In 1958, Kusama left conservative Japan and arrived in New York, hoping to electrify its art scene. While her striking polka-dot paintings, soft-sculpture creations and now-famed “Mirror Infinity” installations had admirers, Kusama, being female and Japanese, received far less attention than same-caliber white male artists.
The film suggests that, in what appears to be a case of appropriation, artistic elements initially found in Kusama’s work suddenly started appearing in the pop art of Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.
Meanwhile, Kusama’s eccentricity and audacity — she crashed the 1966 Venice Biennale and presented a large mirror-ball installation outdoors, for starters — alienated some potential supporters.
Experiencing severe depression, Kusama returned to Japan and, in 1976, checked into a psychiatric hospital. Her art keeps her alive, she says.
The tides eventually shifted, and, since the 1980s, Kusama has received numerous awards and opportunities to show her work worldwide. Exhibitions include the current blockbuster “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors.”
At just 76 minutes, the film is somewhat sketchy. It lacks the depth of “Finding Vivian Maier” and the Andy Goldsworthy docs in terms of exploring its subject’s artistic psyche.
But Lenz still has put together an enjoyable and inspiring picture of the inimitably creative octogenarian behind the bright red hair and Internet hype.
Lenz presents Kusama’s art pieces copiously and admiringly, revealing them as serious works that reflect both dark experiences and a hope for peace. The movie’s an optical treat.
Interview subjects — gallerists, curators, friends — supply satisfying stories. We learn about the sex-free romance Kusama shared with artist Joseph Cornell, for example.
Lenz’s accounts of late-inning triumphs, including Japan’s selection of Kusama to represent the country at the Venice Biennale in 1993 — 27 years after she crashed the event — are, like this overall film, a moving testament to Kusama’s contributions and perseverance.
Starring: Yayoi Kusama
Written and directed by: Heather Lenz
Running time: 1 hour, 16 minutes