Yaacov Agam: Israeli Painter Who Makes `No Graven Images'

THE first encounter I had with the works of Yaacov Agam was some 20 years ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was walking past the huge polymorphic painting ``Metamorphosis,'' and enjoying the flicker caused by my changing position, when I heard a docent in front of it announce, ``The artist says he paints this way because he was born in Israel, the son of a rabbi.'' Startled, I wondered what that fact had to do with the painting. The docent went on to explain that, as the son of a rabbi, Agam was accustomed to hearing endless applications of the same Bible verse, stated in many different ways and terms, and, as a Jew born in Israel, he was expected to obey the law that states, ``Thou shalt not make ... any graven images.'' The docent and group moved on, but I stayed behind to ponder the statements and look at the painting.

I had been encountering a number of major changes in my life, and I'd often felt this particular painting was in a way comforting, and I sought to understand why. Could it possibly be because it was a religious painting?

I moved over to one side and looked. The forms were simple geometric ones: circles, squares, rectangles, painted on triangular strips of wood so that the work could be seen from three angles. I was looking at it from one side only.

Then, in walking past the painting, it seemed as though it were moving, or ``flickering,'' as I had come to think of it, before I reached the far side where the geometric forms were placed differently and in different colors.

The artist had not used any ``graven images,'' any reproductions of familiar natural or personal forms, just shapes and colors and their relationship. Then he had taken those shapes and, with different colors, had rearranged them.

Just so, a statement of a universal truth might be applied in another setting, or the components of one's life - career, home, family, friends - might take a different arrangement. And yet the same forms or elements were always there, eternal, changeless.

Between one side of the painting and the other, however, there seemed to be a bit of movement, even as there might be some upheaval in one's life, before patterns were rearranged. All the while, the harmony was there - on both sides of the painting, as well as behind and beyond the commotion of the change.

Some years later, encountering an Agam serigraph entitled ``Noon at Midnight,'' I again enjoyed the kinetic quality of the art, while experiencing the comfort of its multiple harmonies. From the extreme left, it presents three strata of a bold and bright spectrum interspersed with thinner horizontal strips of black containing flecks of white.

As one moves toward the center, vertical strips of white appear, softening the colors. At the center (seen straight on), other forms hint their existence, clamoring to replace what one has already seen and containing elements both of what has been and what is to be.

Then, as the viewer moves to the right, new forms emerge fully, replacing older ones and giving new pattern and color to the work. By the time one moves to the extreme right, the work has resolved itself into a composition in black and white.

Where there was once the full spectrum of ``noon,'' now there is starkness of ``midnight,'' and conversely, where midnight exists, there is also the presence of noon. The artist has painted it all in one work; the viewer needs only to change the point of view to include it.

As Agam's works continue to appear all over the world - from a fountain sculpture on the Champs-'Elys'ees near the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, to the movable steel gates at the President's House in Jerusalem, to the large polymorph paintings decorating the fa,cade of a hotel on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, California, I am often reminded of the painter's own words, ``...you can't give a limit to reality. Life is always transforming itself, always leading to the unexpected. My works exist in an infinity of possibilities.''

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