Yaakov Agam was born in 1928 in Rishon-le-Zion in what is now Israel. The son of a rabbi, he decided in 1944 to live in a kibbutz, but for his resistance activities was imprisoned by the British for eighteen months. He had started to paint as early as 1940, and nine years later studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, before moving to Zürich. There he studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Art) under Johannes Itten. In addition he attended architectural lectures given by Siegfried Giedion at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, and enrolled to study music and art history at the university. It was primarily the encounter with Itten and the mathematical theories of Max Bill that soon led him to Constructivism. In 1951 Agam moved to Paris, where he met Fernand Léger, and was introduced to Surrealist circles. His first solo exhibition in the Galerie Craven in 1953 was also the first show devoted explicitly to kinetics.
It was also in 1953 that his first »polyphonic« picture was created. This term, borrowed from music, where it denotes the interplay of a number of themes from which a further theme is developed, was transferred by Agam programmatically to his visual working principle. Two independent views produce a new composition as a result of superimposition. These visual confusions are most conjured up by creating the surface of the picture out of a vertical, slat-like and at the same time prismatic relief. It allows different colorations and designs to seen from left and right – and, when viewed from a central position, yet a third picture. He varies the picture in many ways from now on in the pictures he called his ›metamorphoses‹ (see S. Lemoine, in exhib. cat. Düsseldorf 1973, 22).
In 1955 participated in the (for him, pioneering) exhibition ›Le mouvement‹ at the Denise René gallery, an important focus of geometric art, where other exhibitors included Alexander Calder, Jean Tinguely and Viktor Vasarely. By this time, Agam had already developed a language of his own (écriture simultanée) for his artistic concept, which comprised a number of different media and design techniques, from kinetic sculptures, across graphic works and sound compositions all the way to filmic experiments.
While hitherto Agam had only used motion that was brought about from outside, in other words had to be carried out by the beholder of the work in order to experience any visual change, in the 1960s he developed tactile and polymorphous works (Transformables or Tactiles), in which the beholders actually move the image by touching it and interactively altering elements of it. They can get components to vibrate and thus create temporary layers of movement in which they participate. By analogy, in his sound installations an audiovisual experience only comes about when the recipient moves about in the room. With the temporal interval between action and perception, the works dating from the 1960s stand vicariously for his investigations of time, to be seen as the fourth dimension. In this way, Agam distances himself from the gestural concept of the picture; rather, he extends it to embrace a concept of interactive and simultaneous experience of images. ›I need (…) the comforting feeling that a dialogue has been spun out between my and my public and that my works, by destroying form, convey a purpose‹ (Agam, in: Preuves 1971, no. 7, 129, quoted from exhib. cat. Düsseldorf 1973, 3).
At the same time as the playful participatory pieces, he also developed models for experimental theatrical spaces, and created the Jacob’s Ladder in the Israeli parliament. Agam was also represented at numerous exhibitions, for example the 1964 Venice Biennale and Documenta 3 in Kassel.
He constantly expands his media possibilities, always with the aim of ›liberating‹ the object. Yaacov Agam shows this with his remote-controlled soap bubbles (Télé-art) no less than in the synaesthetic projects outdoors, for which he combines sound. light and water elements, for example in the work for the Parisian district of La Défense (1976, added to in 1991). In the 1970s he realized many further projects in the public space, including many large steel sculptures which brought him international fame. Their principle is based on the repetition of elementary geometric forms which are mostly movable. Among the best-known works of this period are the Hundred Gates in Jerusalem, the installation Peace – Life for the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and also the kinetic Agam Room in the Elysée Palace, which was reproduced in similar form for one of the concert halls in the Forum in Leverkusen.
In all his works, Yaacov Agam endeavours to give pictorial expression to the Hebraic ideas of reality, according to which singularity is absorbed into infinite totality. ›My work is thus ‹more reality than abstraction, for the observer is revealed a world that is ›One, yet unique in unity‹’ (Agam, Glaubensbekenntnis, 1964).
Alongside new forms of expression in environmental and computer art (such as the installation Wings of the Heart in the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York) Agam develops his specific graphic technique, ›agamografie‹ – a three-layer silkscreen print on acrylic glass, which creates an effect akin to a hologram. His teaching methods were introduced into primary schools in Venezuela in 1979, and in Israel in 1994, for which he received the Jan Amos Comenius Medal, awarded by UNESCO, in 1996. In 1989 he won the Grand Prize ARTECH at the 1st International Biennale in Nagoya in Japan.
Yaacov Agam: exhib. cat. Fundación Arte y Tecnología, ed. by S. Aragaki and F. Castro Flórez, Madrid 1998
R. Köhnen: ›Weltkunst, Glaube, Technik. Über Yaacov Agam‹, in Kritisches Lexikon für Gegenwartskunst 42, 9/2, 1998
Yaacov Agam: exhib. cat. Fundación Arte y Techología, Madrid 1997
G. Metken: Agam, Stuttgart 1977
Yaacov Agam. Bilder und Skulpturen: exhib. cat. Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf 1973
‘Yaacov Agam, The Artist and His Credo’, in Ariel, 9, Winter 1964