Yayoi Kusama has been dubbed the polka dot princess, the unapologetically idiosyncratic, high-minded Japanese star whose obsession with the dot has been an evolving means of artistic expression in her work since the 1960s. Featured as a one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in this week’s magazine, the 87-year-old artist goes in front of Alex Majoli’s lens.
Majoli, a Magnum photographer known for his war photography, has documented everything from political strife in Afghanistan to the closing of insane asylum in Greece. A recipient of this year’s Guggenheim Fellowship, he is also immersed in art. He visited Kusama’s studio in Japan, where life-size paintings line the walls, while others surround her desk in vertical stacks.
“She was natural, fully immersed in her brush, her colors” Majoli tells TIME. “In a portrait, you get a stiff smile, but when you give them a brush, they go.”
Through subtle lighting effects and an even more subtle camera presence, his aim was to dissolve into the background so Kusama’s personality surfaced.
“She’s been photographed millions of times but I wanted to capture her unencumbered,” Majoli says. “People wear masks and act out in society through this facade, but artists are more vulnerable, they aren’t hiding from anything. Kusama was not afraid of the way she would be portrayed by me.”
As the official photographer for the 1993 Venice Biennale, Majoli spent a day photographing Kusama as she installed her solo exhibition over 20 years ago. His images at the Japanese Pavillion revealed a youthful Kusama interacting with her art in a mirror installation. He says her methods haven’t changed.
“She doesn’t paint like Matisse who created work amid girls and free flowing wine,” he says. “She is organized, slow and methodical—like a machine.”
Alex Majoli is a member of Magnum Photos.