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Kusama: Infinity

I have to first address the pet peeve I have with abstract, and some modern, art. A lot of it is just crap. This can be proven in a few different ways. I love telling this story about Howard Stern giving his newscaster Robin Quivers a hard time for spending six figures on a Jackson Pollock. He went on and on about it just being paint splatters and spills all over a canvas. She said Pollock’s paintings move her. Stern claimed he could do a painting like that and she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They made a big wager on it, and he painted one. They put it next to real Pollocks, and it took 3 guesses before Robin picked it out of a lineup of 10. As Stern triumphantly laughed, he told her he’d sell his painting to her for a lot less than the six figures a real Pollock would cost her. But of course, without his signature in the corner, nobody cares about spilled paint on canvas, do they?

Another example I can use to explain crappy art is Jean-Michel Basquiat. He hustled on the streets trying to sell his graffiti-style art, mostly in postcards, and nobody was interested. All the galleries in New York turned him down, repeatedly. Andy Warhol bought a postcard for $5 and took a liking to him and tried to help him out. Together, their stuff bombed. Then somehow, Basquiat got a little bit of buzz and started making money. After a rise in popularity, the galleries decided maybe they could sell his stuff. Once he died of a heroin overdose, his paintings were worth millions. It’s weird how nobody claimed he was a genius before. In a documentary about him, one gallery owner who turned his work down initially, said he was so talented and that with some artists, you don’t appreciate their genius at first. Yeah, right.

And I don’t just knock him without doing the research. I’ve looked at hundreds of Basquiat paintings, and only about 3 or 4 of the hundreds I looked at were intriguing.

The last “artist” I’ll bring up to prove my point is Yoko Ono. She’s the butt of jokes, with the way she yells and yelps during her musical performances. Some of the art work she had in a gallery that John Lennon loved before meeting her, simply had a black dot on a huge white canvas. Another piece had a magnifying glass dangling from the ceiling. You climbed up a ladder, used the magnifying glass to read a small word written on the ceiling — “yes.” Lennon thought it was brilliant. Well, that makes one person.

So it comes as no surprise to find out Ono is a big fan of Yayoi Kusama, and at one point you see her in this documentary taking a photo with her. In fact, if Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono had a baby — it would be Kusama.

Kusama is in her late 80s, and is showing no signs of slowing down. She’s painting her polka dots everywhere, although she’s not doing as many nude exhibits and protests as she did in the ‘60s.

Director/producer/co-writer Heather Lenz gives us an interesting biography of an artist you’ve probably never heard of, who has a fascinatingly bizarre story. She had an unpleasant childhood, although they’re rather vague on the exact nature of the unpleasantness. Just as they end the movie not explaining to us why she’s creating her art inside the confines of a mental institution.

Kusama demonstrated  a talent for painting at an early age, and at one point, she sent a letter to American artist Georgia O’Keefe for advice. Surprisingly, that famous artist wrote her back, imploring her to go to New York. So in the late ‘50s, with no money and all alone, she went to the Big Apple. None of the galleries seemed all that interested, but she persisted, and she’d occasionally get some exhibits and things thrown her way. In some instances, other artists stole her ideas. One of them being Andy Warhol. It does seem it was harder to make it in the art world being a woman back then, as well as Japanese; although…I see things she created, like her “penis chair” or a bunch of mirrored balls floating in a pond and…I just sort of shake my head. Her most common artwork involved dots being painted or placed on things. In the ‘60s, that was often on nude bodies.

When we start to hear about Kusama’s mental state, it’s interesting to speculate on how that manifests itself in her art and the repetitive nature of it (always with polka dots and nets over water). She suffers with OCD and depression, although at times you wonder if that’s just because she’s not making it in an art world she feels she deserves to be a part of.

At least we get to see lots of her art; although it also had my wife and I scratching our heads as to what people see in it. Some pieces can be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, but so what? When I was talking to comedian Norm MacDonald about art years ago, he agreed with my take. He said, “How come art galleries and people like that get to dictate what great art is? Why is it if I think the dogs playing poker is pleasing to my eye, that’s still not considered fine art.”

That doesn’t mean Kusama doesn’t have some interesting pieces of work. A lot of her sculptures are mesmerizing, and there are some engrossing paintings. But the penis chair. Did I mention the penis chair already?

Speaking of that, and nudity, her hometown was so embarrassed by her ‘60s protests and nudity, they removed her name from an alumni list at her high school (which makes the ending of the movie so much more moving, but I won’t spoil that the way every other critic has when reviewing this).

There’s an interesting story we find out about artist Joseph Cornell and his relationship to Kusama. In fact, there are a number of interesting things. My wife even said, “It’s strange that I hate her art, but I love this documentary.”

Composer Allyson Newman provides a lovely score for the documentary. This film works for those that know her work, and it’s interesting enough for people that know nothing about her.

3 stars out of 5.