Eating from the Tree of Knowledge
Moving slowly and wearing a rather tattered jacket and worn hat, Yaacov Agam arrives for meeting pulling a valise on wheels. He will use this valise later as a shield of sorts, to fend off a question or petition. Its contents cover his professional life over more than 60 years: every book he ever published, countless articles written about him, letters he received, photos with assorted personalities, careful documentation of lawsuits involving him, stamps he designed and the original invitations to his exhibitions, starting with his first in Paris in 1953.
Agam is 81. Just about everyone in Israel knows who Yaacov Agam is - a pioneer of kinetic art here and abroad, known, inter alia, for "Jacob's Ladder, on display at Jerusalem's Binyanei Ha'uma Convention Center; his sculpture, "100 Gates" at the President's Residence; the monumental wall murals, "The March of Time," which inaugurated the new Tel Aviv Museum in 1970; and for designing the western facade of the Dan Hotel on Hayarkon Street in the 1970s.
He is the man behind the unique and notorious fountain in Dizengoff Square (1986); he developed a display technique using perspective known as an Agamograph; a writing method known as Agamilim, where changing one letter changes the entire word, curricula for visual education and more.
All of these are the visual representation of the two predominant concepts that have occupied Agam since his childhood: movement and time. Time, he says, "is always new, is impossible to recreate and unexpected." He connects and associates both specifically to Jewish culture and experience.
Apart from all of this, Agam is known for the public controversy around several of his works, including the fountain in Tel Aviv's Dizengoff Square. For over seven years Agam and the Tel Aviv municipality have been fighting it out over the fountain's renovation, maintenance and operation, a dispute that has reached the courts and was resolved in a compromise agreement, and now the parties are trying to finish it.
Agam's famous "The March of Time," which he built specifically for the Tel Aviv Museum wall and donated to the museum, is still in the midst of a legal proceeding: Around 14 years ago, it was removed and Agam petitioned the court against the museum and its director, Prof. Mordechai Omer (who refused to be interviewed for this article). A hearing on the matter is scheduled for February.
In contrast to these local controversies, abroad Agam is much esteemed. He has presented at numerous exhibitions at the world's biggest institutions, including a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam (1973) and another retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York (1980). In 1963, at the Sao Paulo Biennale, he won the first prize of its kind for artistic research. He displayed his works at the Elysee Palace in Paris in 1972 at the invitation of then prime minister Georges Pompidou and there's a musical fountain by Agam in the French capital's La Defense quarter.
This year he exhibited in Paris and Basel his mirror-based work, "Beyond the Reality," as well as displaying a new work at the entrance to the World Games stadium in Taiwan.
The three projects he is now working on are a huge public building in downtown Taipei in the style of the Dan Hotel and the Neeman Towers he designed in northern Tel Aviv; a large exhibition, also in Taiwan, in collaboration with the Israeli representation there; and an exhibition to be shown in Pontoise, outside Paris. And he also recently designed a page for the Google Chrome browser.
Yaacov Agam was born in 1928 in Rishon Letzion, the son of a rabbi and kabbalist, Yehoshua Gipstein, and is one of 11 siblings.
"I never went to school. It didn't work out," he says. "We were a big family, and I lived across from a school, so either they forgot to take me to first grade, or when they remembered, I was already too old even for second grade. I was jealous of the kids who went with a bag to school, so I would also take a bag and draw. I would roam around Rishon all day, drawing in the sand and watching how the wind came and everything changed."
However, his parents hired a tutor to teach him Torah and Talmud. Throughout his childhood, he and his mother were told that "nothing would come of this child." He was already soaring to new realms of thought, imagination and creativity.
During "Black Sabbath" in 1946, when he was just 15, he was arrested (he says he was not a member of any underground organization) and spent several months in the Latrun detention camp. "It was no spa," he mumbles and continues in a louder voice: "I saw worried people who were concerned about their families. The British abused prisoners terribly. I started spontaneously giving prisoners ideas for making artworks from olive wood, which they later sent home. Today, these works are on display at the Museum of the Underground in Jerusalem. Suddenly, I saw and understood the immediate connection between people and art. Since then, I have always allowed myself to include the observer in everything."
When he was 20, Agam enrolled in the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and, among others, studied under Mordechai Ardon. He had an intense attachment to color and constantly attempted to expand the shades on the palette. Still, something upset his tranquillity that he was not able to put into words.
"I was constantly searching for a solution to this problem of getting away from art that is fixed." Thoughts about the concept of time started weighing on him. Classical art and what was being created in those days seemed problematic because it is stopped; there is no dimension of time in it - it is fixed and unvarying.
After completing his studies in Bezalel, in the early 1950s, Agam traveled to Zurich and encountered ideas combining the abstract and a harmony of colors. Very soon after, he moved to Paris. There, he relates, "I attached a form to my painting, I didn't pay attention and I attached it with a thumb tack or Scotch tape, and it fell a few centimeters. The axiom is that you take paint and glue and you attach the shape, and here I didn't fix it in place. I found two places, so I dropped the guideline of being fixed in place."
In Paris, he worked in a minuscule atelier and lived a hand-to-mouth existence, did errands and cleaned for a Zionist organization and painted apartments. He would go to the paint store and stare at the paints for a while, to avoid buying hastily and using up all his money. On one such occasion, he relates, a woman named Nina came in and asked for a frame to be repaired. The store owner responded crassly, and Agam, who did not know a word of French, offered his help.
"When she came to pick up the repaired frame, she looked around, grabbed a work of mine and said she'd help me," he relates. "She didn't manage to sell the work, but she told me the best-known gallery in Paris, the Galerie Graven, wanted to exhibit my work."
That woman was Nina Laval, the wife of art critic Robert Laval. The couple, like the owner of the Galerie Graven, saw the innovation in Agam's work and asked him not to show his works to anyone, so as to surprise everyone.
The exhibition opened in 1953. Agam says excitedly that it "reverberated far and wide, primarily among the surrealist artists, Max Ernst and other artists bought paintings. The gallery owner told me that because Max Ernst was interested, another five people wanted the same thing. I told him over my dead body, I wouldn't do it. Every painting is a process of creation, experience and going to unknown terrain. What's the point of going on a path I had already been on? There is no feeling of the experience and if I don't feel it, neither will others."
Within a short time, he says, he went beyond two and three dimensions and started working on the fourth dimension in his work. During his stay in Paris, he also became a favorite of well-known artists, including Brancusi, Yves Klein and Alexander Calder, thanks to their common interest in movement.
"I found that the weak point among all of them," says Agam, "despite their desire to get past the time barrier, is that they remained stuck. They touched on it, Fernand Leger did work with movement and people moving, Chagall did works with people flying in the air on the streets, there was Dadaism and futurism, but no one achieved movement, only in the illustrative sense."
From his first works in Paris to his most recent one, Agam has been studying perspective and the infinite. He creates using the different shades of colors, their composition and graphic forms, painting and sculpture with infinite perspectives. The challenge for Agam is that at any point where the viewer stands, he will see something completely new. The work changes as long as the viewer circles it.
In the catalog for his first solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum in the early 1970s, he defined it this way: "In the Jewish perception, time and reality have been intertwined since the story of Creation, in which Adam discovered, while eating from the Tree of Knowledge death, along with reality, that is, the element of time."
Agam lives in Paris and works in an atelier that he says once belonged to Paul Gauguin. He frequently visits Israel. He is not religiously observant but says he does not deal on the Sabbath and since the death of his wife, Klila, in the 1980s, does not walk bare-headed. He always wears a hat. The two married in Paris in 1954 and have three children; their eldest son, Ron Agam, is the photographer. Some say Yaacov Agam was not only influenced by the Hungarian-French artist Victor Vasarely, but also copied from him. Both created art that is mostly abstract and composed of geometric foundations and broad color spectrums. Agam vehemently denies this claim.
Vasarely, he says, was already known at the time for his optical and graphic works and approached Agam before his 1955 exhibition at the Galerie Denise Rene in Paris and told him, "You are having an exhibition in Paris, but you're not well-known enough. Let's help you, we'll get a few more artists and give you some support."
Agam was tempted and later told this to a friend, Henri Breton. "I told him that 'they promised to support me.' He told me I'm naive and in a play on words said, 'they want to empty you out.'"
Agam collaborated with the Weizmann Institute of Science on the Agam Program to develop visual thinking, intended primarily for early childhood. In 1975, Tel Aviv University gave him an honorary doctorate in philosophy, and in 1985, he received a prize from the Israel Museum. On October 20, he will receive an honorary doctorate from the College of Management.
His graphic works can be seen at various art galleries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and the second Herzliya Biennial, now underway, features one of his works. Nevertheless, it has been more than 30 years since he had a large exhibition in Israel.
The attitude toward you in Israel has not changed, and there is no large exhibition on the horizon. Does this situation bother you?
"In Israel, I don't care, because here I work with children (in the Agam Program). At the Tel Aviv Museum, Professor Omer has ruined things for me. I am not waiting for recognition, and I'm not waiting for prizes. I did an exhibition with Dr. Haim Gamzu at the Tel Aviv Museum (in the early 1970s), and there is no artist in Israel who had close to 300,000 visitors. It's been a long time since anyone has invited me, and I'd be willing to do a large exhibition at the Israel Museum."
How do you explain other artists' treatment of you?
"I pose a big threat. When I did the exhibition in Paris in 1953, they wrote there that it is a big threat to artists. They wrote what a scandal it is that a viewer came to visit an exhibition and suddenly he is exhibiting. If I am correct that the fourth dimension is the dimension that expresses us, and it is of the present and of the evolving, all the other things are meaningless."
Agam, at 81, continues to create energetically. "Just like you breathe, I create," he says. "I must create; that is Judaism. It is essentially a way of life: Judaism is art. In order to be Jewish, you have to create. Because man was created in the image of God, he is not a monkey, he is not an animal."
Toward the end of the meeting, Agam pulls a small statue from a glass case in his valise, called "Beating Heart." Every touch creates a new movement and a different structure.
For a moment it seems Agam himself has turned into one of his kinetic works; he is in constant motion, does not stop presenting his artistic creations. And despite all the honors, he still hopes for worthy recognition in his hometown.