Now you see it
New York — The Guggenheim Museum here is hosting some kinetic paintings and sculptures of Yaacov Agam, and a collaborative theatrical venture of Mr. Agam and Eugene Ionesco.
Although Mr. Agam has experimented widely in matters of art, he is best known for his works in various media which demand spectator participation, in particular paintings that change their appearance according to the viewer's position in relation to them.
In other words, works that, while themselves remaining exactly the same, are continually altered in the eye of the beholder as he passes before them.
The play is Mr. Agam's multistaged production of "Variations on the Same Theme: Journeys Among the Dead," Mr. Ionesco's first play since "Man with Bags," which opened in 1978.
The kinetic pieces, collectively entitled "Beyond the Visible," consist of both monumental and small-scale works -- as well as unusual pieces created especially for this exhibition. These include "Panoramagam," a relief mural running along the outside face of the museum's lowest interior spiral; "Aenaitral," a 48- foot decorated tower ascending from the center of the museum floor; and 180 individually designed, tapestry-covered cubes which double as a large sculpture during the day and as movable seats during the evening performances of the Ionesco play.
This is accomplished by various means, but especially by designing each work as a series of pyramid-shaped vertical strips painted varying shapes and colors. These replace one another in the viewer's eye as he moves before them, and create a flow of pictorial images rather than the single static image usually seen in painting or sculpture.
A good example is the early and relatively simple "Il n'y en a pas." When seen from the front, this is flat-patterned abstract painting with a number of geometric forms and large number of vertical lines.
If approached from the left, however, a considerably altered image meets the eye -- but one that changes rapidly as we proceed before it.
This sequence of quickly superseded images continues until we are precisely in front of the painting, where it stabilizes as the static fronta image we first saw.
If, however, we had approached the painting from the right, a different sequence of images would have come into view, although these would have followed the same optical principles as the others.
In other words, while the painting always remains the same, what we see of it changes the second we move either to the right or to the left. If then seen from a new stationary position, it becomes a single variation of the frontal image. If, however, it is viewed as we move rapidly along, it becomes a steady stream of changing and flowing shapes and colors.
To Agam, this perceptual process -- with the viewer only glimpsing stages of the painting's "whole" -- is like his view of our fragmentary perception of the "infinite": Just as we can perceive only facets of the painting, so can we only comprehend a fraction of the nature of the "infinite."
Thus Agam anchors his art upon philosophical, even theological, considerations, and sees its significance in philosophical speculation and theological wonderment rather than mere visual enchantment.
Now that's all well and good. Any art that enchants in order to lead us into deeper areas of feeling and thought is always more than welcome. In fact, many of us are extremely partial to art which, like Calder's and Miro's, first entices us by its delightful playfulness -- and them mysteriously draws us into profoundly new realms of questionings and heightened sensibilities.
But that is something that must come out of the art itself and be an organic part of what is experiencedm in that art. It cannot be verbally grafted onto it like a label -- no matter how well-intentioned that act may be.
And that, I'm afraid, is what I feel about the declarations of profound intent given to these works by Mr. Agam. Whatever he may have intended and wished them to be, the works themselves exist as extremely handsome and lively decoration -- and very little else.
Much as I enjoyed this exhibition, enjoyed its vitality and colorfulness, its optical enchantment, I never for a moment felt that these qualities led anywhere but to entertainment and to surface enjoyment.
It is an extremely attractive show. Our eyes and our sense of coloristic liveliness are enchanted by what we see. Everything is terribly nice to look at: The shapes are clean and well defined, the colors are bright and clear, the movements beautifully choreographed.
But I'm afraid that, pretty and decorative as they are, these works have the same relationship to genuine art that a child's toy mobile has to one by Alexander Calder. When all is said and done, when we have stopped moving about trying to get one more variation out of a particular painting, when we have really tried to see beyond the immediate pleasure these works give our eyes, when we have left the exhibition and thought back upon it -- what really have we come away with?
About what we get out of eating an ice cream cone or a chocolate chip cookie: delightfully delicious, but then gone forever.
Art is more than that. It must linger within us and advance some portion of our interior lives.
The works of Yaacov Agam, in my opinion, while visually enchanting, leave behind little of real value once they are out of sight.
Like the Ionesco show, this exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum will remain on view through Nov. 2.