As Art Basel returns to Hong Kong in 2021, Jon Wall traces the 46-year history of the BMW Art Car and the list of artists who created these extraordinary automobiles.
Almost since the day Carl Benz dropped a two-stroke gasoline engine into the back of a tricycle, laying the groundwork for the age of the motor and a vast global auto industry, artists have been inspired cars – and car manufacturers, in turn, were inspired by art. Perhaps this was inevitable, as few modern inventions had such a profound effect on society and culture in the 20th century as the automobile. As it was used, the automobile for a time became a liberating force, which allowed its owners to travel much more widely, independently and spontaneously than they had ever imagined possible, and especially in the United States, where it has become an essential theme of popular culture and even high culture.
In Europe, and particularly in Italy in the first decades of the twentieth century, the automobile, technology, speed and dynamism were heady influences for the futuristic movement, with cars depicted largely in the abstract in works such as Dinamismo di une Automobile by Luigi Russolo. (1913) and Speeding Automobile by Giacomo Balla (1912), as enthusiastically celebrated in the Futurists manifesto: “We affirm that the magnificence of the world has been enriched with a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with big pipes … is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace [the latter an ancient Greek sculpture of Nike dating to the 2nd century BCE]», Writes its author, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti.
The traffic between car and art was not just one-way. For example, the great Italian-French craftsman and automobile designer Ettore Bugatti, some of whose creations are considered among the finest automobiles ever made, comes from a line of esteemed craftsmen and artists. His father, Carlo, designs and manufactures Art Nouveau furniture, musical instruments and jewelry; his brother, Rembrandt, was famous for his extensive bronze sculptures of wild animals; and his uncle, Giovanni Seganti, painted alpine landscapes.
In the second half of the 20th century, cars featured as artistic subjects in a variety of ways, such as Wolf Vostell’s Concrete Embedded Cadillac some 50 years ago (the result, Concrete Traffic, is now in a parking lot at University of Chicago), Salvador Dalí’s clad automobile collages and Andy Warhol’s cars, commissioned by Mercedes-Benz and completed shortly before the artist’s death in 1987. The filthy engine of an old Mercedes even featured as an installation (Das Beste oder Nichts – The Best or Nothing, 2010) by Vietnamese-born artist Danh Vo at the Guggenheim in New York. Some would even say that the motor car – or at least some motor cars – can be considered a work of art in itself.
More aptly for the purposes of this story, however, automobiles are also increasingly used by artists as moving canvases on which notions of speed, technology, fuel consumption and color can be expressed, and a host of other themes. Their number includes an old Triumph GT6 sports car painted by street artist Banksy (2005), an Audi A1 re-imagined by Damien Hirst in 2010, a Ferrari 430 painted in color by graffiti artist Crash (2015) and a Bentley. Continental GTC given the comprehensive treatment by Pop Art pioneer Peter Blake (2016). Most famous of all, however, has to be the BMW Art Car Project, in which 19 prominent artists painted, embellished or otherwise manipulated one of the German automaker’s automobiles in order to turn each car into a rolling work of art. .
The project began in 1975, when French auctioneer Hervé Poulin, who was also an avid amateur motor racing enthusiast, decided to participate in the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans car race and invited his friend, the American sculptor Alexander Calder (best known for his kinetic mobiles), to decorate his BMW 3.0 CSL, a car nicknamed “Batmobile” among motorsport enthusiasts for its huge rear spoiler. Calder had already accepted a commission from Braniff Airlines that year to turn one of his planes into a ‘flying canvas’, and for Poulin’s car – she ultimately finished the race in 24th place – he adopted a similar approach by coating the primary colors of red, blue, ocher and white on its exterior surfaces to give an impression of accentuated and fuzzy speed.
Following the positive reception of the original Art Car, BMW supplied a second Batmobile a year later, which was entered again at Le Mans. American artist Frank Stella, who was hired to design this car, covered the machine with a monochrome grid resembling grid paper and a plane, giving it a very technical look.
Two other Art Cars were created in the 1970s. The first, a BMW 320i which raced at Le Mans in 1977, was designed by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein in his inimitable comic book style (his famous painting In the Car, now owned by the National Gallery of Scotland, is based on an illustration from the comic strip, Girls’ Romance). More abstract than figurative, Lichtenstein’s work on the BMW nonetheless used comic book techniques to suggest a car moving at high speed through the countryside; before its track debut, it was unveiled to the public at the Center Pompidou in Paris.
Perhaps the most famous art car of all was the Procar racing version of BMW’s mid-engined M1 supercar, which entered at Le Mans 1979 with a team of drivers led by famous German driver Manfred Winkelhock, who competed at Le Mans 1979. brought the machine to the checkered flag. in an honorable sixth place. That, however, was less the reason for its fame than the fact that the car was painted in its entirety – and in person – by Andy Warhol, who slapped large, seemingly random spots of color across its body. “I tried to give a vivid representation of speed,” the artist said of his work. “If a car is really fast, all outlines and colors will become blurry.” It is said that it took Warhol less than 30 minutes to complete the job, for which he was only paid the cost of the paint.
Over the next 38 years, until 2017, 15 more Art Cars were created by a list of artists chosen by a panel of international experts: the list included prominent names such as Americans Robert Rauschenberg and Jeff Koons, Australian Ken Done, Italian Sandro Chia, Briton David Hockney and, from China, Cao Fei. Not all of the artists painted the car itself: In 2007, Berlin-based South African Robin Rhode drove a blue Z4 sports car across ground to create multi-colored tire tracks, while in 1999, American Jenny Holzer sported brilliant slogans, such as “Protect me from what I want”, through the sleek form of a V12 LMR racing prototype (a similar car, which was designed and built for BMW by Operation Williams Grand Prix, won Le Mans that year).
In 2017, Guangzhou-born Cao Fei addressed issues such as Chinese history and the future of mobility through a multimedia installation based on a carbon black M6 GT3 racing car. Although best seen via the complete installation with which it was originally shown at the Minsheng Art Museum in Beijing, the car itself took to the Macau track that same year, eventually claiming fourth place despite the extraordinary projections of reality. increased that accompanied its progress. around the Guia circuit.
And if this, no doubt, qualifies as the most spectacular Bmw Art Car of all, then surely a special mention to go to number 17, the M3 GT2 which was reworked by Jeff Koons for his participation at Le Mans in 2010. The car was covered with a wrap of multicolored strakes with bright contrasts that evoked an astonishing impression of movement even when standing still. Although he retired from the race after five hours due to technical issues, Koons’ artwork looked so sensational as he raced the 13.6km-long circuit that his appearance alone could surely be. considered a creative victory, although his performance on the track is probably best forgotten.
This article first appeared on Prestige Online Hong Kong.