From Presidents to Premiers, It's An Eye-Vote for An Artistic Visionary Named Agam

updated 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 AT 01:00 AM EST

Art is by definition a message of peace," says painter-sculptor Yaacov Agam, 53. Two years ago, in celebration of the historic Israeli-Egyptian accord, he created a 24-inch stainless-steel statuette in which the stars of David (six-pointed) and of Islam (five-pointed) are linked in an elegant form. Agam presented one casting to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, another to President Anwar el-Sadat. Now a third graces the Oval Office of the White House. "President Reagan was fascinated by it," the Israeli-born, Paris-based artist explains, "and I wanted him to have one."

Actually, Ronald Reagan was still President-elect when he received his first Agam last January. Over tea and cookies at Blair House, the Reagans were spellbound as Agam showed some of his works and expounded on his philosophy. (Nancy Reagan was especially intrigued with a heart-shaped mobile that pulsed when touched.) "It's strange—and interesting," Agam muses about the meeting arranged by their mutual friend Lenore Annenberg (since named Chief of Protocol). "The President is a very conservative man, while I am supermodern. Yet he was fascinated by the fact that my works are alive, moving, transforming, changing colors and producing new forms." When the Reagans' lease on the White House began on January 20, no fewer than four works donated by Agam moved in with them.

Agam first earned renown in the 1960s as a pioneering practitioner of the eye-dazzling Op Art. Since then he has more often been labeled a kinetic artist, a term he disdains. Agam prefers to call his offerings "transformables"—multifaceted works that change forms when touched or viewed from varying angles. "The most constant thing in life is change itself," he explains. "Reality is in constant change, unexpected, and so is my art. Instead of stopping time, I try to express the beauty of change."

Agam arrived at his artistic style without any formal education, and it amuses him that his first visit to a learning institution came when he taught a visual education course at Harvard in 1966. Born in the desert settlement of Rishon Le Zion, Yaacov was the seventh of nine children of an Orthodox rabbi who concerned himself exclusively with spiritual matters. "He was always fasting," Agam recalls. "He munched at night, but I don't ever remember seeing him eat." The holy books and Jewish tradition taught Yaacov that "creation and inspiration came from yourself," an insight that became the basis of his intuitive art.

Married to a girl from the next village, Agam bravely chose to go abroad to follow the classically impecunious existence of the struggling artist in Paris. For years he and his wife, Klila, endured leaky attics and a hand-to-mouth survival before recognition arrived with some one-man exhibitions. Then in 1963 Agam took a first prize in the São Paulo Bienal, the first for an Israeli artist.

Ultimately it was the patronage of Georges Pompidou, the late president of France, which propelled Agam into big-time art. Amidst the ornate Louis XVI setting of the Elysée Palace, Agam was commissioned to do a modern anteroom replete with moving walls that reflected as many as 5,400 different color shades. (The contrast in decors proved too flamboyant for Pompidou's successor, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who ordered the Agam room removed—walls, floor, ceiling and all. But it has all been reassembled at Paris' new Centre Pompidou.)

Success has taken the Agams a long way from their franc-less past. Today a butler, cook, maid and driver stand ready at their Paris apartment. The family retreats regularly to its country estate, complete with a miniforest, lake and pool, an hour and a half outside the city. The couple's eldest son, Ron, 22, currently lives in the Agam apartment in New York, where he is studying economics. Son Orram, 18, and daughter Orit, 12, are in Paris; he is a budding classical composer, she loves to paint and reads a book a day.

The senior Agam remains a kinetic arsenal of ideas with which he bombards the world through a battery of phones—seven in his Paris studio alone and one in each of his five cars. His projects range from a redesigned supercomfortable shoe to a revolutionary approach to visual learning which, he claims, has excited educators in France, Israel and Venezuela. No esthetic snob, Agam declares that "America is lucky not to have an artist as President, for the definition of an artist is someone who shares his feelings with the masses."

Agam's own prodigious artistic output is in museums, public plazas and private collections around the globe. But he says he was never adept at keeping score—or accounts. Klila Agam maintains the balance sheets and even doles out her husband's pocket money. "She won't even let me keep a credit card, since I've lost two already," he says.

Agam notes that even his lithographs now fetch upwards of $12,000, and a client like writer Irving Stone has waited up to nine years for delivery. "I just can't keep up with demand," pleads Agam. "I raise prices from time to time so people will buy less. It's getting so," he adds in tones reflecting more pleasure than despair, "that even I can't afford an Agam anymore."

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