Israeli Op Artist Yaacov Agam at Espace Meyer Zafra
From March 11 to May 21, Espace Meyer Zafra is offering visitors a rare delight — a retrospective event featuring the paintings and sculptures of Yaacov Agam, one of the most powerful voices of the 20th century.
The exhibition brings together a sweeping panorama of the artist’s work, with pieces from the 1960s all the way through to the 2000s. There has never been such a wide look at Agam’s career — and you can see it all now in Paris.
To celebrate this exciting event, we’re going to deep dive into the life of Yaacov Agam, learn about Espace Meyer Zafra and its important place in Le Marais and in the Paris art scene today, we will explore the current exhibition !
The Life of Yaacov Agam
Born in 1928, Yaacov Agam came into the world as the son of a Russian rabbi. His family soon lived in an early Jewish settlement, meaning he had few educational opportunities before the age of 13. What he did have, however, was access to art. And in this realm he flourished.
As he came of age, he pursued a formal art education. This took him to major world cities, including Jerusalem, Zürich, and eventually Paris. It was in the City of Lights that he spent most of his career, but it was in Zürich that he received many of his most foundational lessons. While there, he met Johannes Itten and learned from his Bauhaus-influenced ideas. It was here he also studied the writings of Wassily Kandinsky, another Bauhaus legend, whose muscular defense of Abstraction gave Agam the intellectual basis he was looking for to pursue his unique point of view.
By the beginning of the 1950s, Op art was becoming a major movement in the world of Abstraction. These artists painted images that created illusions and strange effects when interacting with the human eye. Agam would become a master of this field as he stepped out from the conventional ideas of what a painting could be and into this strange new frontier that he would help create.
How Agam Changed Op Art
Rather than keeping to a flat surface, Agam created structures on the surface so that viewers would see different things depending on where they were in relation to the painting. If they moved from one side to the other, the image would change.
This is sometimes called the “Agamograph” in honor of the artist, but it is also referred to as barrier-grid animation — creating the illusion of movement by combining a striped overlay with an image underneath (like scanimation cards).
Agam also experimented with lenticular structures. These are surfaces made up of ridges, so that viewers can only see one side of these ridges depending on where they stand.
Art that includes movement (whether in the art itself or in the viewers) is called kinetic art, and Agam was the leading pioneer in combining kinetic art with Op art.
His experiments in these fields became more and more sophisticated over the course of the 50s. And by the 60s, he was pursuing art where its component parts could be moved (as we’ll see in works below like Homage to an Assemblage Mouvant).
As time went on, Agam explored the introduction of fixed light and sound to his work. This further pushed the experience of his pieces, giving viewers more and more unique ways to engage with his vision.
His success led to many major public installations, including the Star of Peace and a memorial at the Wailing Wall in honor of the victims of the Holocaust.
Espace Meyer Zafra
This incredible gallery opened in 2000. Since then, it has dedicated its space to presenting Latin American and European artists who leap into the exciting world of Op art, kinetic art, and geometric abstraction.
The gallery is run by a family friend of mine, Lilane Zafrani — a successful art gallerist who is guiding this enterprise through a field that is always so rewarding and fresh. Her ongoing contributions to the city’s culture led her to be chosen to lead the UNESCO Programmes Culturels.
Zafrani learned from Venezuelan master Jesus Rafael Soto, a contemporary and fellow traveler with Agam.
It is fitting that Espace Meyer Zafra brings this forward thinking collection to the historical district of the Marais in Paris. After all, it is home to so many moments in art, and it is also where the Rue des Rosiers is, the largest Jewish quarter in the city.
The Yaacov Agam Retrospective at Espace Meyer Zafra
When I visited this exhibition, I knew I was in for those trademark Agam elements, like:
sense of play
But standing in the room with these works is completely different than a list of attributes — they just have so much life and power! What’s more, because they ask the viewer to start moving around in the space to discover everything they have to offer, these works are fun. A morning or afternoon spent at the Espace Meyer Zafra checking out this exhibition is a great time!
While everything was worth seeing, a handful of pieces really stood out.
This is one of Agam’s most famous works for sale. When you look at it standing to the right of the painting, you see a grid of symbols presented in black and white. They range from an arrow like you might see for wayfinding in an airport to a dollar sign that you might see, well, just about anywhere.
If you move to the left, you only see a collection of colorful squares, presenting a cheerful European look.
Combining these two elements of modernity together, Agam gives us so much to consider. On the one hand, the ubiquity of symbols — brought to their absolute cleanest look — has become a hallmark of design since the 60s. Our world is made up of these symbols, and when we consider what have become the concepts that we turn into signs to fill our world, we really see something about the way we live.
But by hiding these symbols, Agam also asks us to bring ourselves into conflict with the way things are. This isn’t necessarily revolutionary. Instead, it comes from a deep sense of playfulness.
In this moveable sculpture of a menorah, Agam gives us a mixture of art deco design cues and his penchant for making art kinetic.
Though he made many menorahs throughout his career, I think this might be my favorite. Before you even begin exploring how it moves, you can appreciate this piece for its gorgeous design. And it exudes such confidence and dignity.
Multidimensional Space (1983)
This is a moveable work of art that highlights Agam’s commitment to kinetic art. The delicious colors make it a delight to view, and this is doubled by the mirrored base. When this is in the middle of an exhibition filled with his work, that mirror ends up sparkling at all times with his colorful designs.
Agam’s work has always pushed the limits of what we consider a gallery piece. Multidimensional Space shows this effort, and it comes from the artist at the height of his powers.
Star of David (1983)
Many of Agam’s works feature the Star of David, as he often reached for symbols to depict, and this one connected so deeply to his heritage. Remember, his family not only lived in Israel, they were part of an early wave of Jewish settlements there, and his father was a rabbi and kabbalist — so Judaism was the defining theme of his life.
Again in this work, the symbol of the Star of David can be obscured by moving to one side. Here, we are reminded that this religious meaning to life is underneath everything, waiting to be uncovered if we only take the time to look.
There is also a sense of struggle to keep one's identity in a world that is so full of colorful distractions and earthly delights.
Homage to an Assemblage Mouvant (2006)
This work again extends the idea of kinetic art. Here, the pieces on the surface can move, creating a level of uncertainty that we aren’t used to with artwork shown in galleries and museums. But Agam, always ready to explore new territory, gives us this new experience in bright colors, delightful shapes, and an attitude of play.
In works like these, it’s as if the artist is extending a hand to invite us into a game. This is art that produces joy liberated from the weight of representation. This is total freedom.
Agam’s Art in Paris
Agam’s work makes us feel like children — full of wonder at the possibilities we still haven’t explored. And this is what makes Paris such a great place to come for art both to enjoy and purchase. Galleries like Espace Meyer Zafra are always bringing us more wonderful works by artists from around the world.
If you are interested in seeing this important Israeli artist while you are in Paris, we can also visit the Centre Pompidou, which features a massive installation by him.
I even have a colleague at that museum who can give us a specialist’s view of this tremendous work of art. And if you come in time, you should definitely view this special Yaacov Agam retrospective at Espace Meyer Zafra.