Words don't do justice to "Light of Life," the newest addition to the North Carolina Museum of Art's permanent collection.
The work from Japanese-born conceptual artist Yayoi Kusama isn't much to look at from the outside — just a mirrored hexagonal box, about 7 feet tall.
But stick your head inside one of its three portholes, and you'll see yourself transported into an enclosed "infinity room" of changing colors and patterns. The effect is head-spinning and hypnotizing.
It's easy to see why works such as these have made the reclusive 89-year-old Kusama the "most Instagrammed artist in the world."
After the show closes in July, the piece will take up permanent residence in the museum's modern and contemporary galleries in the West Building.
Getting the piece to North Carolina took "pure force of will," said Larry Wheeler, the museum's director.
"With a work like this, you'd think you could just walk in and buy it," adds Linda Dougherty, the museum's chief curator. "But it never works that way, especially with an artist of Kusama's level. We were competing with museums all over the world and had to make a case for here instead of elsewhere."
The process began with plans for "You Are Here." Kusama's popular traveling exhibit, "Infinity Mirror Rooms," had been part of the inspiration for "You Are Here," but demand for work from Kusama was so high that the museum couldn't get one of her pieces for the show.
But late last year, Kusama's New York-based art dealer let Wheeler know that the artist had just made three new "infinity experience" works, including "Light of Life." Would the museum be interested in buying one? Wheeler quickly answered yes.
"Then we went to work to try everything we could to push us to the top," Wheeler said. "I knew one piece was spoken for in New York and one on the West Coast. But the third one was in play, and everybody in the world was playing."
In the meantime, "Light of Life" was on display at New York City's David Zwirner Gallery and drawing big crowds. People were standing in line for up to six hours to get a mere minute of time looking inside it.
"Her work is so immediately accessible," said Dougherty. "Often with contemporary art, there's the fear that you won't understand or relate to something. Kusama is not like that. You can know her story and intent and get it on that level of meaning, or know nothing about her and get it with no need for translation or mediation. People have an almost visceral connection to it."
Ultimately, the North Carolina museum won out and "Light of Life" will be part of the ticketed "You Are Here" in the East Building, which will include 15 immersive art installations of large-scale light works, video works and more.
The acquisition will stand as one of Wheeler's final acquisitions before his retirement, which is tentatively scheduled for this November.
Wheeler declined to say how much the piece cost. The piece was purchased with private funds donated from the North Carolina State Art Society, the bequest of Carlyle Adams and various benefactors.
"It's up there in the range of what expensive works of art are today," he said. "Which is generally in the millions."
Where: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh
When: April 7-July 22. Closed Mondays.
Opening weekend: The exhibition will be open all night long April 7 with an opening party and silent disco from 8 p.m. to midnight. Night owl programming is planned from midnight to 10 a.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military, college students and groups; $9 for youth 7 to 18; and Free for 6 and younger. Free Friday nights for college students with IDs.
Who is the artist?
Yayoi Kusama, born in Matsumo, Japan, in 1929, briefly studied traditional painting before turning toward the avant garde. She spent a decade and a half in New York City, working alongside Andy Warhol and other notable conceptual artists, developing a style of bright colors and shapes.
After returning to her native Japan in the mid-1970s, she voluntarily committed herself to a psychiatric hospital and has lived there ever since. At age 89, she rarely travels. But she is at the peak of her fame and still works six days a week. Her work has been seen all over the world and has been influential in fashion and design. For more, go to yayoi-kusama.jp.