Cárdenas was born in Matanzas, Cuba in 1927 and studied at the Academia de Bellas Artes de San Alejandro in Havana from 1943 to 1949. His first individual show was held at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Havana in 1955, and that same year he traveled to Paris on a scholarship. His wood and stone sculptures are biomorphic and expertly realized, provocative both intellectually and sensually. The affinity that the surrealists felt for his work led to his first Paris exhibition at the Galerie L'Etoile Scellle in 1956. Since then, Cárdenas has been exhibited widely in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. At the 1961 Biennale de Paris he was awarded the prize in sculpture. Among his many individual shows have been FIAC, Paris (1980,1984), Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas (1982), and International Gallery, Chicago (1990). His works appear in many museums and private collections, including Fond National d'Art Contemporain, Montreal, Museum of Modern Art, Tel Aviv, Hakone Museum, Japan, Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas, and Musee d'Art Moderne de la ville de Paris.
Cárdenas lived in Paris since 1955, and worked in Paris and Carrara, Italy. Under the auspices of the magazine Avance the First Exhibition of Modern Art was held in Havana. The magazine helped foment the changes in direction being taken by the visual arts in a context that Marinello defined as the "critical decade". Since his days at the San Alejandro Academy, the "master of masters" of Cuban sculpture, Juan José Sicre, recognized in Cárdenas the vigor and creative imagination that accompanied him throughout his career, from his early work at the end of the 1940’s through the experience of "Los Once" to the mature, definitive work of his Parisian period. In 1995 he was awarded the National Fine Arts Award, along with another outstanding Cuban sculptor, Rita Longa. He worked wood, marble and bronze with the same ease and sureness and with a poetic freshness that demonstrated that traditional media are not at odds with each other. He was comfortable dialoging ideologically with Brancusi or Henry Moore, with all the vitality afforded by an island whose sense of itself derives from its creative involvement in the linguistic codes of contemporaneity. Cárdenas’ impeccably finished, imaginative and truly poetic work has a parallel in painting in the work of another great Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam. Agustín Cárdenas’ farewell leaves a void, as each great artist does, but the compensation is his universal legacy, in which he was able to capture, in the words of Ricardo Pau-Llosa, "the apprehension of those intangible forces that give life form." Cárdenas spent the last few years of his life in Havana, where he died in 2001.