Art and the automobile are related in a number of ways. First, there's the art OF the automobile. Beyond its utilitarian reason for being are its aesthetics. The way it occupies its space. The Museum of Modern Art has recognized the automobile as art starting in the late 1950s with a show called "Eight Automobiles" which included such disparate examples as the Fiat Topolino and a Cisitalia. More recently, a MoMA show featured a Ferrari Formula I car.
The car as art is further evidenced by the ubiquity of the Concours d'Elegance, beauty pageants for cars of all sorts ranging from rod and custom collections to the awesome assortment of the world's finest automobiles of the past gathered every August on the green sward surrounding the Lodge at Pebble Beach.
Cars as art, cars in art
Then there is the automobile IN art. Picasso, Dubuffet, Robert Indiana -- ever since the car has existed, artists have toyed with its image, teased it, enshrined it. In recent years, a number of artists have become specialists in the automobile just as many artists of previous generations centered their attention on horses. Whether portraits of cars in representational detail, or flashing impression, or abstracted bits and pieces, automotive art is a genre to be taken seriously.
Another approach might be said to combine the art OF the automobile and the automobile IN art. Consider the whole cars and parts of cars -- notably chrome bumpers -- artfully smashed into variously shaped cubes by John Chamberlain.
Art ON cars, or Christ on a Chevy
Both whole cars and parts of cars also come into play in art ON the automobile. Last summer in Santa Fe, I saw some interesting examples of parts of cars transported into art. These were hoods of cars hanging on the wall and covered with dabs upon swirls of rich color. Away from any automotive context, these car hoods, shining of surface yet with a depth like a dark pond beneath lily pads, might have been shaped canvases. Except that the title identified the source. (I particularly liked a hood from a Mini.)
In the village of Chimayo near Santa Fe, Randy Martinez is a master of the airbrush who paints on whole cars. His subjects used to be voluptuous women, but then he turned to the local tradition of religious iconography, evident in the local Santuario near his home. He has painted Christ on the flowing tail of a 1950 Chevrolet and saints and religious scenes on other cars, and he painted the entire village on his cousin's 1979 Cadillac.
BMW as medium
But probably the best-known examples of art ON cars for the last 20 years have been BMW's Art Cars -- various BMW models used as three-dimensional canvases by well-known international artists. The fourteenth such BMW was recently completed by David Hockney, the British-born Californian, and displayed in Hamburg, Germany, in conjunction with a retrospective of his drawings. His canvas was a BMW 850CSi.
The artful BMWs began in 1975, when Herve Poulain, a Paris art auctioneer and racing car driver, made BMW an offer. If he could drive at LeMans on the BMW team, he would get Alexander Calder to paint the race car. The resulting Calder BMW 3.0CSL was the start of a tradition that led to race and street cars embellished by Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Joining that group have been Europeans Ernst Fuchs, Cesar Manrique, A.R. Penck and Sandro Chia; Australians Michael Jagamara Nelson and Ken Done; Japan's Matazo Kayama, and South Africa's Esther Mahlangu.
BMW's Art Cars have been exhibited in major museums and galleries ranging from the Louvre in Paris to the Whitney in New York. After Hamburg, London's Royal Academy will be the showplace for Hockney's BMW until December.
Hockney treats the cars's surface as if it were transparent. The side view reveals the body of the driver at the wheel (a real driver's head would be visible in the side window) and a little dog in the back seat. The hood is similarly "transparent" with stylized intake manifolds. Hockney said his aim was "playfully destroying the car's outer surface while at the same time respecting its overall design."
And because "traveling in a car means also experiencing landscapes," Hockney chose green for the predominant color.