Reclusive Kusama’s ‘Infinity’ Room Lures Billionaire Collectors

Billionaire collectors are finding it hard to resist Yayoi Kusama, the 86-year-old Japanese artist who chooses to live in a psychiatric clinic and is famous for her polka-dot creations.

This week, one of her popular immersive installations is on display during the opening of the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, the brainchild of Dasha Zhukova, partner of Russian billionaire art collector Roman Abramovich. Another edition of the same 2013 work was purchased by billionaire Eli Broad, whose private museum opens in Los Angeles in September, and a third by an anonymous European collector.

The price for each piece, a dark room with mirrored walls filled with thousands of tiny, pulsating lights: just shy of $1 million, according to David Zwirner gallery, which represents the artist.

“It was the most popular artwork at the opening,” said Christina Steinbrecher-Pfandt, director of the Vienna Contemporary art fair, who attended the Garage event for 2,000 VIPs on June 10. “There was a huge queue to see it. It’s a perfect museum selfie.”

Wealthy buyers are chasing trophy works as an investment and status symbol, pushing prices to record levels. Kusama’s auction prices increased nine-fold in the past 10 years, with a record of $7 million set for a 1960 painting in November at Christie’s. The Garage exhibition, her first solo museum show in Russia, will introduce her to a new generation of collectors.

Poster Girl

Kusama’s exhibitions last year attracted two million people, making her the most popular artist in terms of exhibition attendance, according to the Art Newspaper, which called her the “poster girl for the globalization of contemporary art.”

Her sales at auction tallied $44 million in 2014, the most of any living female artist, according to Artnet. Women artists trail their male rivals -- works by Jeff Koons at auction totaled $170.8 million last year.

A fixture of the New York art scene in the 1960s, Kusama has been voluntarily living in a mental hospital in Japan for decades. She’s known for her red wig, hallucinogenic paintings and giant pumpkin sculptures.

The Garage’s opening, in a 5,400 square-meter (58,125-square-foot) home designed by Rem Koolhaas, drew international art world tastemakers including the Whitney Museum of American Art director Adam Weinberg, French billionaire Francois Pinault and Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of the New Museum in New York.

Counting Dots

“Counting the polka dots,” supermodel Natalia Vodianova, who attended the opening, wrote in her Instagram post as she posed at the Kusama installation. “Are you up to the challenge?” More than 17,000 Instagram users liked the post.

Kusama’s Garage exhibition includes two immersive installations. In “Infinity Mirrored Room -– The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away,” each viewer enters a darkened room alone and is surrounded by the mesmerizing universe of blinking lights.

The second piece, the 2015 “Guidepost to the Eternal Space” is a brightly lit environment, with white polka dots on a red background that covers walls and various structures.

Crowd Pleaser

Kusama has made different versions of the infinity room and was an instant crowd pleaser whenever it’s been shown.

In 2012, another infinity room with a different title was a popular feature of the artist’s retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Infinity Mirrored Room – The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away” was first shown at the Zwirner gallery in Manhattan in 2013, drawing 75,000 people who lined up for hours in the freezing weather.

Kusama’s latest exhibition at Zwirner, “Give Me Love,” runs through June 13. So far it has attracted 30,000 visitors, according to the gallery. The show includes new psychedelic paintings and a stand-alone one-room house called “the obliteration room.”

The gallery’s website warns that the wait time can be two hours. Visitors place multi-colored stickers on surfaces and objects, eventually covering up, or obliterating, the original white space.

On Instagram there are more than 168,000 posts with hashtag #YayoiKusama, surpassing 136,719 posts with a hashtag of #JeffKoons. Pablo Picasso’s hashtag has 576,582 posts and #Beyonce has 6.6 million posts.

Kusama’s debut at the Garage is shaping up to be a hit.

“Russians loved Kusama,” said Inga Rubenstein, a Russian-born, New York-based collector who attended the opening. “The work is easy to understand because it’s so beautiful.”