Features

Art and the Automobile

Cars have stories to tell. We take a look at the artists who listen.

Above: “Das Beste oder Nichts”, 2010
Danh Vo
The engine of the artist’s father Phung Vo’s Mercedes-Benz. 26 x 40 x 81 in
Courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation / Art Resource, N.Y.

An Engine at the Heart of Art

If there’s nothing unique about the filthy Mercedes-Benz engine sitting on the clean, white floor of the Guggenheim museum in New York, why did artist Danh Vo put it there?

Vo and his family fled Vietnam as refugees in 1979 and found asylum in Denmark, where Vo later attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 2010, Danh tore the engine out of a Mercedes-Benz 190, the car his father bought as a rolling reminder that he’d made it in the West, then dragged the grease-covered block into the Guggenheim and transformed it into art.

Art and the automobile have a longstanding relationship that’s sometimes straightforward, sometimes abstract. Defining what art is will always be nebulous, but what we can do is distinguish between art and design. Cars are exhibited in major museums all over the country, such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Senior deputy curator Peter Reed put on a show in 2002 called “AUTObodies,” highlighting some of the most significant car designs in automotive history. “A designer sets out to solve a problem, and really good design is innovating new ways to solve that problem,” says Reed. “But art is liberated from all that; it’s not about utilitarian function. Art is about intention and communication.”

Artists use cars to communicate because automotive language is one we all understand, and the cult of car culture has long inspired artists to create thought-provoking pieces in many different media and styles.

The sheer volume of great automotive art being made today is a body of proof that cars are more than appliances. They want to be driven, to be part of our lives. An old engine might not mean much on its own, but its soot tells the tale of a man’s commitment to make life better for his family. Cars have stories to tell, and we appreciate the artists who are willing to listen.


Oil and Paint

Automotive art lives a vibrant life all over the world and across many media—from sculpture to painting, photography, and printing. The best art forces us to look at some of our favorite cars in new ways.


“Graffiti,” 2013

Jay Koka
Koka captures the sharp and brutal character of the Corvette Stingray. “Car design is so clean and thought-out by committee that I wanted
to contrast it with the rambunctious individuality of graffiti,” says Koka. The sweeping, random energy of the graffiti mirrors the Corvette’s rowdy attitude.


Untitled, 2015

Gerry Judah
Judah made this 130-foot-tall double-helix sculpture for Mazda to show off at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. Atop the twisting steel structure are the rotary-powered, 1991
Le Mans-winning 787B race car and Mazda’s Vision Gran Turismo concept car, representing the past and future of Mazda’s motorsports and design heritage.


“Lotus Elise,” 2010

Guy Allen
Allen’s comic-strip composition and cartoonish style heighten the sense of drama as you move from panel to panel. This aesthetic has its roots in ’60s pop art. We imagine ourselves as the shadowed driver in the middle panel, driving the Lotus Elise through a corner, its suspension fully loaded, its tires screaming bloody murder.


“Aventador,” 2014

Adrian Mitu
Mitu (who paints under the sobriquet Aquarelief) used his morning coffee to draw the cars in his “Morning Coffee” watercolor series. His freshly emptied cup and brush, included in the presentation, are the tools of a passionate daily ritual. What started as a spill became a jolt of ingenuity.

Courtesy of the Chris Burden Studio and Gagosian Gallery/Photo By Benoit Pailley

“Porsche With Meteorite,” 2013

Chris Burden
The 1974 Porsche 914 here was one of many classic cars that made up the late Chris Burden’s personal collection. He balanced his Porsche on a scale with a 400-pound meteorite, a relationship he found uncanny. “There was some sort of weird relation between the nickel iron in the meteorite and the Porsche,” he told the New York Observer in 2013. “A really good German craftsman, with a good hammer, could make a really great Porsche out of that meteorite.”


“Disintegrating, No. 2,” 2013

Fabian Oefner
To create the exploding images of classic sports cars in his “Disintegrating” series, Oefner deconstructed vintage scale models with obsessive precision. He snapped thousands of photographs of individual components that he then assembled in Photoshop to create a single image, such as this one of a 1967 Ferrari 330 P4. “There’s an enjoyment in the analysis, discovering something by taking it apart,” says Oefner. “Like peeling an onion.”


“188 – Ford GT40,” 2011

Markus Haub
Melding digitally altered photography with bleeding streaks of color, printed text, and various varnishing methods, Haub’s Ford GT40 has a sense of controlled chaos that manages to make a popular subject feel new. The main images for the mixed-media works in Haub’s “Racing Legends” series come from photos he takes at vintage car events throughout Europe.


Alter Ego

Photo courtesy William Stern.

The automobile is part of our visual landscape, and many people are totally desensitized to its presence. Laurence Gartel wants to change that, one vehicle at a time. As part of the digital art movement, Gartel uses multicolored vinyl wraps to create psychedelic art cars. This is Gartel’s latest art car, a tropical-themed 2007 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG commissioned by Florida-based tuner RENNtech.

AM: How do you conceive a design for each car?
LG: When people commission me to make a car and ask what I’m going to do, I say that it’s not up to me. It’s whatever the car wants to be. One time I designed a woman’s Ford Focus like an aquarium filled with fish, and she loved it.

AM: Explain how a car knows what it wants to be.
LG: Every car has a story and a history. Every car has an alter ego, and deep down they all want to be different. Most of today’s cars are just boxes. Imagine a beautiful world where every car on the road is unique and has its own personality.

AM: How does a car speak to you as an artist?
LG: The design somewhat dictates what the result is going to be. I have to be like a golfer, working around the course, maneuvering and finessing around the terrain of the car to make my best approach. Every car presents its own challenges.

Laurence Gartel

AM: Were you always a car guy?
LG: I grew up in the car culture of New York of the 1960s. My father bought a Chevy Nova station wagon for $2,000, and in those days, even basic transportation had interesting style. We later got a used 1963 Cadillac that just blew my mind.

AM: What are some of your favorite cars?
LG: I first fell in love with the Jensen Interceptor convertible and the bug-eye Austin Healeys. These days I like the aggressiveness of supercars, so I’m drawn to Pagani and Koenigsegg. They’re adventurous and emotional.

AM: Would you rather take an exotic and build on its personality or discover something unseen about
a regular car?
LG: Well, do you root for the underdog or the heavy hitter? I love supercars, but you can take anything mundane and make it fantastic. I’ve taken my own Chrysler 300 and added a paisley print, and it outshines Bentleys. Art is the great equalizer. A car needs to still be functional, but art can make it elegant and beautiful. I know I could make a Honda that would give an Aston Martin a run for its money.

AM: What is your goal with an art car?
LG: Great art turns the world into a more conscious world. Maybe if a Hyundai Sonata drives by with some vibrant art on it, somebody will wake up.


Art and the Automakers

If automotive art is all about using the language of cars to communicate, what happens when the original manufacturers have something to say? Companies often turn to artists to act as their voices and find new ways to connect with their audiences. Whether it’s Charles Sheeler photographing Ford’s industrial infrastructure in 1927 or Andy Warhol making prints of historic cars for Mercedes-Benz, people worry that involving a corporate entity renders art contrived and inorganic. The reality, though, is that somebody had to pay Michelangelo to take his brush to the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Here are some of the most prominent examples 
of auto-makers working with artists today.


“Inside Rolls-Royce”

Rolls-Royce is opening itself up and letting fans look at what it takes to produce some of the world’s most extravagant and luxurious automobiles. The traveling exhibition presents Rolls-Royce’s manufacturing process, sharing magnificent details and highlights through a variety of sensory experiences. A digital screen displays the 44,000-color Rolls-Royce paint palette. One room is dedicated to the smell and feel of natural wood. Another area is devoted to varieties of high-quality leather. The most compelling component of “Inside Rolls-Royce” is a video wall that displays the trademark Spirit of Ecstasy mirroring your every move. After visits to Los Angeles, London, and Dubai, the show is currently touring through China.


VW Tech in MoMa’s Björk Retrospective

MoMA integrated technology from the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab (ERL) into a recent Björk retrospective. Silicon Valley-based ERL adapted its Sound Journey technology, which generates audio data based on steering wheel angle, throttle and braking application, and vehicle speed, to help create an interactive, smartphone-based audio guide to the exhibition. The choose-your-own-adventure audio experience responds to your location within the exhibition space as well as the movements of your head and body. It’s kitschy, but this experience shows the healthy relationship between an automaker and a cultural institution.

Photo by Patrick M. Hoey.

The Big Three Rescue a Detroit Icon

In the wake of Detroit’s very public bankruptcy, there were fears that the city-owned Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) would be forced to sell off its collection. That didn’t happen, due in large part to donations of $10 million each from Ford and General Motors, as well as a contribution of $8 million from Fiat Chrysler. It’s fitting for a museum that hosts a highly regarded work of automotive art, Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” murals, which depict workers at Ford’s River Rouge plant in the early 1930s. Those murals, by the way, were paid for by Edsel Ford.


The “Unstoppable Spirit”

Land Rover chief designer Gerry McGovern commissioned Italian artist Nino Mustica to create a sculpture of the all-new Discovery Sport that articulated the more emotional side of automotive design. “There is no doubt that all beautiful, functional, and elegant objects stimulate creativity,” says Mustica. “This work is a fascinating exploration of how these worlds collide and interact.” “Unstoppable Spirit,” which debuted last fall at the Southbank Centre in London, is an example of the artist and designer finding natural commonality through aesthetic abstraction.

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