Avant-garde legend Yayoi Kusama gets her own museum in Tokyo

Five-storey building dedicated to 88-year-old artist attracts huge interest before opening, with visitors restricted to 200 a day

Yayoi Kusama is about to apply a splash of colour to an unremarkable Tokyo suburb with the opening of a new museum dedicated to the avant-garde artist whose career spans six decades, tens of thousands of artworks and countless polka dots.

The 88-year-old’s trademark motif – along with her familiar “infinity nets” and generously lashed eye designs – feature prominently at the museum, from its glass entrance to the interior of the lift and even the mirrored walls of the toilet.

The five-storey Yayoi Kusama Museum, located among featureless apartment blocs in the Japanese capital’s western suburbs, has attracted huge interest before its public opening on Sunday.

The global acclaim that has greeted what many believe is Kusama’s golden age has forced the museum’s owners to restrict the number of visitors, with just 50 people to be admitted four times a day for 90 minutes each.

A visitor looks at the sculpture titled Starry Pumpkin during a media preview of the museum
A visitor looks at a sculpture, Starry Pumpkin, during a media preview of the museum. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

That should be long enough to venture deep into Kusama’s psychedelic world of abstract expressionism, from her newly sculptured bulbous pumpkin in the building’s rooftop gallery, to dozens of paintings and an “infinity room” filled with glowing pumpkins.

It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before Kusama, whose work has appeared at the Tate Modern, the Pompidou in Paris and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, gave her name to a space she can genuinely call her own.

Kusama has been turning her obsessions into visually striking paintings and installations since the late 1950s, when she was part of the same New York art scene that produced Andy Warhol and Kusama’s biggest influence, Georgia O’Keeffe.

But it is only in the past two decades that her works have attracted global admiration, earning her the title of the world’s favourite artist in 2014, the same year one of her paintings sold for $7.1m (£5.3m).

The museum’s open spaces, white walls and curved lines provide the minimalist backdrop to dozens of colour and black-and-white paintings covering the walls of the two main gallery spaces.

Kusama’s Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity.
Kusama’s Pumpkins Screaming About Love Beyond Infinity. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Tucked away by the staircase is a door that leads into her latest infinity room, where dotted pumpkins flicker in the dark, giving visitors the sense they are standing in the middle of an endless field.

“We want people to come and look at great art, but also to learn something about Kusama the person,” said Akira Tatehata, the museum’s director.

At her nearby studio, the artist told reporters that she had no intention of slowing down.

“From age five or 10, I’ve been painting, from morning to night,” she said. “Even now, there isn’t a single day when I’m not painting.”

Surrounded by piles of brightly coloured canvases and wearing her familiar scarlet wig along with an orange and black dress, Kusama said the visions of polka dots were as strong today as they were when she first saw them as a child growing up in the town of Matsumoto in the Japanese Alps.

“I still see hallucinations even now,” she said. “Dots come flying everywhere – on my dress, the floor, things I’m carrying, throughout the house, the ceiling. And I paint them.”

Visitors look at work by Kusama during a media preview of the exhibition
Visitors look at work by Kusama during a media preview of the exhibition. Photograph: Justin McCurry

In 1957, Kusama, then in her late 20s, left Japan for the US after a lengthy correspondence with O’Keeffe. There she indulged her obsession with repetition and multiplication, and organised artistic “happenings” that sometimes featured casts of naked people covered in polka dots.

After growing disillusioned with life in New York, she returned to Japan in 1973 to seek psychiatric treatment. Two years later she checked herself into a mental health institution, where she lives to this day.

The museum’s inaugural exhibition, Creation is a Solitary Pursuit, Love is What Brings You Closer to Art, comprises mostly recent works divided into two sections. My Eternal Soul is a collection of large acrylic paintings – including several that have never been shown before – in vibrant colours that Kusama began in 2009; Love Forever comprises 50 silk screens of marker pen drawings that encapsulate her fascination with repetition and accumulation.

While the non-conformism that shocked audiences during her “phallic period” in the 1950s is absent from the current exhibition, her philosophical connection with the beat generation remains strong well into her ninth decade.

“In every way, I want to pour my love into humanity, and for a wonderful society without war,” she said. “I want to live every day with the longing to fight for mankind.”


Justin McCurry in Tokyo

The GuardianTramp

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