Yaacov Agam, a one-time rebel in the art world, looks back on his legacy.

ONE OF Agam’s most famous – and controversial – works was the fire and water fountain, which he created in 1986 and installed in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ONE OF Agam’s most famous – and controversial – works was the fire and water fountain, which he created in 1986 and installed in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘I’m not any different from you or any other person,” says artist Yaacov Agam. “I’m not special. It’s all from the Holy One, blessed be He. I didn’t excel in school as a young child. Teachers would tell my parents that I wasn’t going to amount to anything.
“I used to wander around the streets and look up at the sand dunes of Rishon Lezion. I learned to look closely at things. Unfortunately, nobody knows how to really see things anymore.
“I recently met with Education Minister Naftali Bennett and I asked him, ‘Why aren’t children taught to see anymore? This isn’t any less important than learning how to think. The way kids are being taught today is ruining them.’ But it’s like talking to a wall – nobody’s listening to me.”
Agam, a world-famous artist, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Born in Rishon Lezion, where he still lives today, Agam grew up in a religious community, which he says has played an important role in his art.
“As Jews, we are different from everyone else around the world. What unites us is our faith. We don’t have any physical object displaying our faith like the Egyptians, with their pyramids, and the Chinese, with the written characters that make up their language. In fact, the first commandment of the Ten Commandments (after the first, which is, of course, ‘I am the Lord’) is ‘You shall not make for yourselves an idol.’” And the statues you’ve created don’t violate this commandment from God? “No, not at all. My artworks are not idols. They are always changing. Idols remain constant and never change. Judaism is built on an emerging reality.”
AT THE age of 18, Agam began studying at the new Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem, and at 21 he moved to Zurich to further his art studies. In 1951 he moved to Paris and joined various art circles.
“Back in Israel, when I would talk about my ideas regarding art, people would look at me like I was crazy, like I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“Luckily, I was offered a job teaching art at a Jewish Agency seminar, which is where I met Miriam Yalan-Shteklis [an Israeli writer and poet famous for her children’s books], with whom I collaborated on a book. At the time, I was itching to integrate the Jewish world into my art, since it’s always emerging.”
How did you do that? “The first time I showed my works in a solo exhibition was in 1953. The gallery owner offered to show my artwork in his gallery. He told me to keep everything under wraps until the show, because if someone saw them ahead of time, they would try to copy them. The exhibition created a bit of a stir, and a bunch of young artists began copying my style.
“Two years later, I participated in another exhibition with other artists whom I’d surrounded myself with. We called it the Kinetic Movement.”
Agam sold many pieces at that show in Paris, including to seven well-known collectors, who ordered kinetic works.
“At first, I was completely opposed to the idea,” Agam recalls.
“I told the gallery owner that each work of art was unique and one of a kind. I wasn’t emotionally ready to recreate a piece of art. But he kept pressuring me, telling me he’d already made the sale.
“I was very depressed about the predicament I found myself in, until one day Marcel Janco, a co-inventor of Dadaism, walked into the gallery. He asked me why I was so moody, and so I explained what the gallery owner had asked me to do. Marcel stood there thinking for a moment, and then told me that each piece would anyway be a little different from the others and thereby retain its uniqueness.”
AT FIRST, Agam was considered a rebel in the art world. “Critics were hesitant to write about me. My works were considered scandalous, and they didn’t know what box to put me in. A few, however, wrote that a new prophet had arrived.
“I knew that I had to follow my heart to the end, that there could be no compromise in my art. My main goal was to glorify the power of Jewish thought in art.”
With encouragement from Janco and Surrealism founder André Breton, along with inspiration from Judaism, Agam became an important figure in the founding of an artistic movement.
The main component of kinetic art is movement, or the real or imagined movement of shapes in space over time.
“It was a cultural revolution in the art world,” Agam declares.
“It was a great achievement for a young Israeli artist to renew an ancient culture. Kinetic theory is based on a Jewish belief, which is always being recreated.”
Agam also blossomed in a completely separate field: music.
“I produced a vinyl record composed of violin, drums, flute and cello. There was an orchestration of drums and flute, flute and violin – an infinite number of combinations,” Agam describes. “I refer to this as a visual symphony of colors and forms that change over time. Even [celebrated conductor] Zubin Mehta conducted my visual work of art. Music is an integral part of my art.”
Agam taught for years at Harvard University, at the Jewish Academy in California, in educational centers in Venezuela, in schools in China and, of course, in Israel. He has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the UNESCO Prize for Education in Israel and Honorary Citizen of Alabama.
What was the largest amount someone paid for one of your artworks? “Three years ago, at a public auction of Israeli and Jewish art in New York, someone paid $700,000 for one of my pictures.
No other work of an Israeli artist – alive or dead – has fetched a higher sum. It was purchased by a German art collector who already owns a considerable number of my works.”
Despite his views about the lack of visual education in Israeli schools, Agam is highly regarded in Israel.
“Everyone appreciates my art, in Israel, too, of course, but there is still an irritating attitude by the establishment toward important works,” he says.
“Take, for example, the Yizkor monument I created in memory of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah, which stands in the courtyard in front of the Kotel in Jerusalem. It symbolizes the victory of the Jewish state, and yet it is neglected and dirty. I’ve sent numerous letters to the Jerusalem Municipality requesting that it be cleaned, but so far they’ve ignored my entreaties.
This has been a very painful experience. The same statue stands in New Orleans, but there it is cleaned every week.”
One of Agam’s most famous works is his water and fire fountain, which was created in 1986 and placed in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square. It was the first work to combine the dimensions of time and movement together. Over the years, the fountain became Agam’s most recognizable work of art, and it aroused considerable controversy.
The uniqueness of the fountain was that at the top of each hour, elements of movement, water, fire and music were set in operation, and the fountain soon became a major attraction in the city.
It was criticized, however, for the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been invested in its creation and operation (most of which was donated by German millionaire Yosef Buchman).
“It was my gift to the city. I wanted to add to the city’s Jewish character,” explains Agam.
In 2011 and 2012, the fountain was renovated at a cost of NIS 2 million, which led to further criticism. It was disassembled in December 2016 with Agam’s consent, due to renovations on the square.
“Where else in the world can you find a fountain that combines fire and water, where you can go to for solace in times of sadness or to be happy?” says Agam proudly. “But because it was neglected, it became rundown. But don’t worry – soon people will be able to interact with the fountain through their computer.”
From the facade of the Dan Tel Aviv Hotel, the Agam colors still face the sea, and one of the works that Agam mentions over and over is Jacob’s Ladder, which was commissioned by the President’s Residence.
“They wanted something that both religious and secular residents would be able to connect with,” Agam recounts. “And so I created Jacob’s Ladder and proved to them that it was possible to create mutual understanding through art.”
Agam believes that art can be the solution for achieving peace.
“Before [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin traveled to Jordan to sign the peace agreement [in 1994], I was invited to the Defense Ministry to make a drawing of a star of peace that would connect the two religions, Islam and Judaism.”
Nowadays, Agam spends most of his time helping to develop the new Yaacov Agam Museum of Art in Rishon Lezion, which features many of his large artworks. He loves meeting and chatting with people who come for a visit at the museum.
He is intent on teaching and having an impact on the younger generation.
“My artwork is displayed all over the world,” Agam says. “I didn’t erect this museum to make money or increase my popularity.
I don’t need any of that. The raison d’être of the museum is to educate Israeli children and teach them how to become creative. To teach children – even while they are still inside their mother’s wombs – to see, really look, and not to remain closed and rigid. I don’t want to teach them to think, but to see creatively and visually. Everyone who visits the museum is grateful for the experience and leaves with a feeling of excitement to go out and create.”
What do you wish for yourself on your 90th birthday? “To fulfill my greatest vision: to establish a cultural and art education center in Rishon Lezion near the municipality. I’ve been trying to accomplish this for 20 years already. The day will come when the children will hate the institutions that prevented them from achieving a visual education. I’ve written numerous books, but only in Israel are my ideas not respected, and that pains me.
I’m 90 and I will not rest until I fulfill my dream.”
What tip would you like to offer to young aspiring artists just starting out? “To learn how to see, really look and understand the wisdom of our creator. That’s it.”
“You have to remember,” Agam tells me at the end of our interview, “art and faith both come from the same Hebrew root. If you believe, you’ll succeed in every endeavor you undertake. I’ve always had faith – maybe that’s why I’m still going strong at 90.” 
Translated by Hannah Hochner.
This article originally appeared in Ma’ariv, The Jerusalem Post’s Hebrew-language sister publication.