Yaacov Agam is one of the most renowned Israel artists of all time. His paintings, exhibited all over the world, both define and defy kinetic art with a signature use of bold colors and shapes. Agam was born in Rishon Lezion in what was then Mandate Palestine. In 65 years of creating art, Agam moved to Zurich and then to Paris. His art, or at least a large collection of it, has now found a permanent home in the place of his birth, at the newly opened Agam Art Museum. Agam took a few minutes out of his extremely busy schedule to talk with The Jerusalem Post about the Jewish conception of time, illustrating movement, and what music can teach about visual composition.
What has it been like for you being involved with the museum opening?
It’s the only museum in the world that is dedicated to art in motion.
Even though my art is very modern, it still expresses the ancient concept of the Jewish people. We broke out of Egypt where there was a Pharaoh that had all these armies, but there was one element he could not beat, that was stronger than him: time.
All the effort of Egyptian civilization was to defy time. Time was the enemy. The pyramids were supposed to be stronger than time. If somebody passed away, they mummified his body. When Moses saw the bush in flames and he came closer, the Almighty gave him a mission; to go to Egypt and tell the slaves that He is coming to get them out, free them, and bring them to the promised land. But Moses asked who he could say sent him. The Almighty said, “I will be what I will be.”
The whole concept of Judaism is the flow of time and the unexpected.
Time by definition cannot be repeated, and it is unexpected. Art arrived from one dimension in the cave, then two dimensions with the Egyptians, then three dimensions in the Renaissance, and it built up from there. It was illustrating movement.
I tried to take this Jewish notion of the unexpected in my art and to see what could happen. The Jewish way of how to look at reality through art changed the world of art. This museum is dedicated to this notion; to see the world in another way.
In Hebrew, the word “present” doesn’t exist. Every painting shows us something that happened in the past and brings it to the present. I show things in becoming and there is always more than you can see.
The Kabbala says to always find the hidden. In one painting, there is so much to see and discover.
There is another notion, that I got from my father. He was a rabbi and I used to look at his books on Kabbala. “There is no shape except in the complete shape and the complete shape is infinite.” Instead of making something in an aesthetic form, detached from any continuity like in most paintings, I try to always express something that is a constant; that is infinite. To see the world with Jewish eyes, although in an abstract way, is always my goal.Are the works being shown in the museum a mix of older and newer paintings?
Yes, and some are computerized on a touchscreen, so that the public can touch and move the image around to find the infinite thing.
They can interact and every time they touch it, something new will appear that will never reappear. The element of a lack of present time is something I try to introduce in my art and I think that people will feel and see that when they go to the museum.
I invite everyone to participate in one way or another. There is a vivid dialogue between the artist and spectator. Then I show that the most constant thing in life is change, but to see the change as the continuity of an action. Everybody can participate and create. This ability to create and participate in the world is something we learn from Shabbat; it’s one of the missions of art. Usually, when you see a painting in a museum, you stand in front, you look at it, and then you move on. With my work, you will never see everything. I want people who come to the museum to be able to see the paintings from every angle, so it’s also changing the approach to viewing art.
Every generation expresses its way of looking at reality differently and every country also. If you want to understand a culture, you look at the art. That is why a visual education is so important. We teach everybody with words, but words are static. When you write it down, it stays on the paper. But when you look around you, whatever you see will never appear again. I met the education minister a few weeks ago at the Knesset and I told him that early education should emphasize the visual more. It’s important.Do you think he was open to hearing that?
He was a little surprised. But most children are growing up visually ignorant and it’s a pity. We have to look and be sensitive to the shapes.
Birds jump from branch to branch making certain sounds and cows make another sound, for example.
Sounds can be visible if you know how to look. I have a set of work called Visual Music. Music is the art of changing sound in time.Do you ever use music as inspiration while you’re creating?
In most of my artwork, I take one theme on one side; the feminine with warm colors and round shapes. Then I take the other side, the masculine, with dark colors and horizontal and vertical shapes.
But you look in the front and they are fused together in harmony. It’s like music in that way; you take one theme and another theme and combine them. God blessed us with the rainbow as a sign. In the rainbow, you have blue and red, all the different colors. They tolerate each other in peace and harmony and then we have beauty. People can learn a lot from this.You were talking about Shabbat earlier. I think of Shabbat as a sanctuary in time that is also beyond time. This is also true of your paintings. If I stare at one of your paintings long enough, I will find that infinite point that connects me to everything.
Yes, and this is the material becoming the spiritual again.
Shabbat is the biggest gift ever given to humanity. It is everlasting hope.
I know you have been involved with architectural projects in the past. Were you involved on that level with the museum?
I’ve done a lot with architecture and monuments around the world, maybe more than any other artist.
I believe that art belongs to everyone, like the rainbow. For the museum, I did something in memory of my beloved wife who passed away. It is an unbelievable experience; unlike any place in the world.
When you arrive, there is a visual symphony with over 3,000 different motifs and shapes. You can read it like a visual story, like a melody.
That’s outside the museum.
The building by itself was not done by me. When you come in, it gives you this feeling of space and opening, without any pressure. Usually a museum is full of pressure. With my paintings, you can see them from 180 degrees and with each degree, you will see something different.
People can come to experience something really different.To learn more: www.facebook.com/pages/Agam-Museum-Rishon-Lezion/124090918275765.