Yaacov Agam is one of the very few living Israeli artists who have
attained international status (he is the only Israeli artist included in
H. H. Arnason's voluminous "History of Modern Art" and in the recent
"Dictionary of Art and Artists," edited by Sir David Piper). As early as
the mid-1950s, Agam was considered one of the most important artists of
the post-World War II period and a leading pioneer of optic and kinetic
art. He is still internationally acknowledged as a major contemporary
Agam (Yaakov Gipstein) was born in 1928 to an orthodox family in Rishon
Lezion in the coastal plain south of Tel Aviv, then a small, semi-rural
settlement. His father, Rabbi Yehoshua Gipstein who devoted his life to
Jewish religious learning, meditation and fasting, refused to register his
son in a school, because no place in a religious school was available (the
excellent local secular school was, apparently, out of the question).
Consequently, the boy grew up without any formal education and almost
without the company of other children. At home, however, Agam absorbed
the heritage of Jewish spiritual values and thought and was particularly
attracted to Jewish mystic lore and kabbalistic studies as practiced by
father, the learned rabbi. Agam considers himself as his spiritual
continuant in his devotion to the study of these values. As we shall see,
this heritage remained at the core of much of Agam's artistic philosophy
throughout his career.
Agam began painting as a self-taught teenager. In 1946, he moved to
Jerusalem and studied for about two years at the Bezalel Academy of Art.
Following the advice of his teacher, the painter Mordecai Ardon, Agam left
Bezalel in 1949 and went to Zurich. The stay in Zurich, although of short
duration, constitutes a phase of crucial importance in the formation of
his style as well as in that of his artistic theory. For it was in Zurich
that the young Agam met three men who left their mark on his art and
thought for many years to come.
The first of them was Johannes Itten (1888-1967), under whom Agam studied
at the Kunstgewerbe Schule. Itten, a former teacher at the Weimar Bauhaus
and of Ardon, was a renowned theoretician of form and colour. In his
lessons, Itten advocated the use of pure colours and carefully studied
colouristic compositions inspired by constructivist ideas. The rational,
quasi-scientific basis of Agam's theoretical approach to the creative
process, as well as his constant preference for geometrical forms, pure,
bright colours and multi-coloured compositions, may thus be traced back to
his studies with Itten.
The second formative influence on Agam was the Swiss painter, sculptor and
designer, Max Bill (b. 1908), who may have inspired Agam's artistic
ideology and work no less than Itten. Bill was one of the leaders of
geometric, non-figurative, or abstract art, which he entitled "Concrete
Art." In his theoretical writings, Bill was much concerned with the
relationship between aesthetic and mathematical theories, and his ideas
appear to have deeply impressed Agam. In addition, it was from Max Bill's
metal sculptures, with their polished, shining forms and precise,
geometric style, that Agam inherited his particular approach to sculpture.
The third important source of inspiration was the architectural historian
and theoretician, Siegried Giedion, the author of a well-known book
"Space, Time and Architecture," whose classes Agam attended at the Zürich
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule.
Giedion advised Agam to continue his studies in Chicago. However, on his
way to the United States, and after an intensive study-tour in Italy, he
settled in Paris in 1951. In Paris, despite many hardships and utter lack
of any financial means, Agam worked and studied indefatigably, also
becoming familiar with the contemporary artistic milieu.
Following World War II, and for a couple of decades thereafter, Paris
still retained its place as the world's major centre of modern art.
However, by then, owing to rapidly developing new means of communications,
the modern movement had already become more international, and artists,
travelling on a scale never equalled in history, rapidly transmitted their
innovative ideas from one country to another. Many artists settled, like
Agam, in Paris, and he soon found himself partaking in the new artistic
developments that echoed not only in Paris, but throughout Europe and the
In the 1950s, France presented a richly varied artistic panorama. Three
generations of artists were active side by side, competing for supremacy.
Pioneers of modern art, such as Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Léger, born
around the 1880s, and their younger contemporaries, Roger Bissier, Jean
Fautrier and others were still painting; the second generation (born
around the first decade of the century), Hans Hartung, Jean Bazin, Maurice
Estìve, Leon Gischia, Serge Poliakof, André Lanskoy, and their younger
contemporaries, including Alfred Manessier, Gustave Singier, Nicolas de
Stael, Victor Vasarelli; and finally, the artists of the third generation,
to which Agam belonged, and who, like him, were taking the first steps in
There was a strong tendency among the painters to return to figurative
painting, but the dominant trend was that of abstract art, which included
several major currents, Expressionist, Informelle (from which stemmed
Tachism), Geometric and others.
We have seen that Agam had already been attracted by geometric abstraction
when he was studying in Zurich. In Paris, he was equally fascinated by
kinetic art, and he soon began to investigate the possibilities of merging
the "element of time" into his art, and finally created his own particular
version of abstract kinetic art.
In 1952, Agam created his first transformable works with parts that could
be moved and change place and position on a panel, thus offering the
viewer the possibility of creating innumerable new abstract compositions.
Later, in his metal sculptures, Agam applied the same principle of
allowing the spectator to take an active part in the creation of new
In 1953, Agam created his first "polyphonic paintings." In these works,
two or more different abstract compositions are painted on both protruding
sides of a relief of a zigzag section, in such a way that one composition
is seen when the panel is viewed from the right side, and another when
viewed from the left. The frontal view of the panel presents a series of
varied compositions which result from the merging, or the "fusion" as Agam
calls it, of several main compositions.
Agam transformed this simple device into rich and complex works of art by
applying it to his highly developed geometric compositions. Moreover, the
spectator perceives not only the gradual merging of one composition into
the other but may also comprehend each successive view as a perfectly
independent new composition. This way of achieving variety and
multiplicity of artistic content in a single work has been constantly
developed by Agam throughout his artistic career.
Agam's great oppportunity came in 1953, when he exhibited his new
creations at the Galérie Craven, Paris, in his first one-man show. This
exhibition, the first one-man exhibition ever held totally dedicated to
"Art in Movement" and described by Agam as his "artistic birth,"
immediately made him a focus of public interest, and he soon became
acknowledged as one of the pioneers of the new kinetic art and the
greatest virtuoso of the group.
During the following 40 years, Agam created numerous works which can be
seen in all parts of the world. Although his works show a great variety
of artistic content, form, style, technique and materials, all of them are
marked by the same constant features, which are characteristic of his
The guiding principle of Agam's artistic works is multiplicity of form and
content. In this, he is in sharp contrast to artists belonging to several
contemporary currents, who may be grouped under the common denominator of
"minimal art," and who tend to reduce to a minimum the structure, form,
colour scheme and texture of their work, in order to achieve a perceived
perfect unity of its content. Agam, in contrast with such minimalist
artists, is a maximalist, for he has always striven to make the content of
each of his works richer in structure and content.
The wealth and complexity of artistic content in Agam's creations can be
seen at their best in such polyphonic works as the "Salon Agam" in the
Pompidou Centre in Paris (1971), where not only a single panel but the
whole space of the Salon is continuously in fluid motion as the observer
walks through it.
The artistic content of a work by Agam is thus not that of a single
composition but the sum total of innumerable forms and compositions that
result from its endless transformation. In other words: transformation
and multiplicity go hand in hand. This is why the artist has also been
attracted to polyphonic music. He has even composed his own experimental
polyphonic music, which he called "Musical Transforms" (1962).
Between 1959-1962, Agam also experimented in the application of
multiplicity to a particular kind of theatre equipped with several stages
upon which different scenes of the same play took place simultaneously. In
1958, Agam even began experimenting with a new kind of "simultaneous
writing," which dissociates speech from reading, and in which several
verbal expressions are written one above the other so that they may be
grasped at the same time. He demonstrated some of these ideas in a
didactic illustrated book in Hebrew, published in Israel in 1989: Agmilim
Agam is more inventive and versatile than other artists who belong to the
same trend: Victor Vasarelli, Nikolas Schoeffer, Jean Tingueli,
Jesus-Rafael Soto and Julio Le Parc. The versatility of Agam's artistic
output is amazing. It can be observed in the great variety of materials
used in his works and even in their scale, which may vary from a small
medallion to a public fountain or the façade of a multi-storey building,
transformed by the artist into a huge, site-designed kinetic-polyphonic
work of art.
Agam's works from the 1970s onwards sometimes include, in addition to
abstract geometric compositions, elements which carry symbolic meaning -
like the combined elements of fire, water and sound in his fountain in the
Zena-Dizengoff Square in the centre of Tel Aviv (1986). Some of his works
even include clear iconographic messages, such as his holographic
medallion (1985), which has a combination of the symbols of the three
monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
In a similar category are other works, which were designed as Jewish
ritual objects (synagogue lamps, a candelabrum (menora) for the Hanuka
festival, his mezuza - the amulet placed in the door-frame of a Jewish
family). The inclusion of such works is an important and critical aspect
of Agam's Jewish background, to which he has remained deeply attached. In
publications on the history of modern and contemporary art, Agam's works
are usually appraised in purely artistic terms, however, he himself has
always stressed the spiritual Jewish background, not only of his iconic
and ritual Jewish works, but also of his entire oeuvre, including the
purely abstract works.
In 1962, at the end of an introduction to an album of his works, he wrote:
"I should like to emphasize three important factors which I regard as
basic to all my research and to my whole work: the fact of having been
raised on the soil of Israel, a soil rich in traditions... which have all
to be recreated in a new way in order to find their place in modern life;
the fact of being the son of a rabbi, who has tried all his life to
dissociate the spirit from physical matter; the fact of having become
acquainted with the Kabbala and pursuing a quest for inner truth." Agam
has frequently reiterated these and similar beliefs, adding to them a
highly personal cosmologic-mystic-kabbalistic interpretation of his
Whether we accept Yaacov Agam's spiritual interpretations or not, it is
his inventive power and virtuosity, as well as the rich and complex
artistic content of his work, that have earned him the respect of critics
and the public, and which will remain the chief source of interest and
appreciation of his works.