These Are the Cars in the Museum of Modern Art
A look at the automobiles in MoMA’s permanent collection.
Cars are some of the most significant items of industrial design, but do they ever rise to the level of art? New York's Museum of Modern Art—whose stated mission is to reflect the art of our time—thinks so. For that reason, its permanent design collection includes an eclectic handful of automobiles.
MoMA's interest in automobiles goes back to 1951, when the museum had its first car exhibition. Those early exhibitions approached the subject largely from an aesthetic standpoint.
But when the museum undertook to add the first car to its design collection—which did not happen until decades later—the qualifications went much further, explains Paul Galloway, the collection specialist at MoMA who oversees architecture and design. "Increasingly over the years, we've come to see cars as objects with a multiplicity of meanings beyond just aesthetics. There's engineering, of course, and how they tap into broader stories. It's how they look, how they're put together, and how they're objects of industrial design but also great magnets of cultural history."
"The key that we always try to emphasize to people is that MoMA doesn't have a car collection, we have a design collection, and in that design collection there are some cars," he says. Here, Galloway takes us through the nine vehicles currently in MoMA's design collection, and explains what makes each one, officially, a work of modern art.
1946 Cisitalia 202 GT (acquired 1972)
"The Cisitalia was the first car that was acquired, back in 1972, and that was the first time that an art museum in the U.S. put a car into its collection. The Cisitalia is a really incredible car—it's kind of an outlier in our collection because it's one of the rarest cars. Every other car is the opposite of rare, they're very common, like a Jeep or a Beetle. But the Cisitalia, only around 200 of those were made. They were handmade, and it was a much more of craft-oriented process. The same Cisitalia model actually was included in the very first car exhibition at the museum in 1951. We acquired this one in 1972—it was a barn find that Pininfarina restored for us. The interest in this one was [driven by] Pininfarina, who is a legend and an important figure in car design. But in particular the 202 GT was a car in which the monocoque construction, the unitized shell, and the beautiful sculptural form really kind of marry engineering to overall shape in a highly aesthetic package."
1990 Ferrari 641/F1-90 (acquired 1994)
"This particular race car reflects a fascinating moment, when Ferrari had poached John Barnard from McLaren and brought him on to the Ferrari racing team to redesign their car. This was the first Formula 1 racer to include paddle shifters, which now are ubiquitous on cars but at the time were really revolutionary, freeing the driver's hands from the stick shift and keeping them on the steering wheel. [The paddles also] fractionally increased shifting speed, and that was a really tremendous advantage. And also, you get the carbon-fiber shell, and all these other advances that were happening in Formula 1 racing in the late '80s and early '90s. This particularly car just really powerfully encapsulates that centrality of engineering and pushing technology to its bleeding edge."
1963 Jaguar E-type roadster (acquired 1996)
"This one has been called the most beautiful car ever made. It is the definition of the sexy car—it's all soft curves, and it speaks to speed. This is the only British car in our collection, and Britain has a fascinating history with automotive design, [particularly] with Sir William Lyon and the Jaguar team. The E-type—and also the Porsche 911—are these two examples of racing technology coming off the track and making its way into cars available to the public. There is this very clear trajectory from the race track to the driveway. And then it's this spectacularly beautiful aesthetic form."
1959 Volkswagen Beetle (acquired 2002)
"The Beetle is just an incredible global icon. Over 30 million of these things were built. We all know what it is. It's a symbol for so many different eras, so many different people. On top of that it's a spectacularly successful design that has really well-rationalized construction. It's practically indestructible with its rear-mounted air-cooled engine that's so weak and yet so capable at the same time. And it's also the beginning of the Porsche family legacy of design that goes from Ferdinand Porsche to Ferry Porsche and on and on that comes through to the present day. The Beetle is the [MoMA car] that has the most cultural heft to it because it's so international. So many of these other cars are very much tied to their country but the Beetle is truly global."
1953 Jeep (acquired 2002)
"The Jeep is the only American car in our collection, which I find kind of fascinating that this utilitarian military vehicle is what becomes the symbol for American car design in the MoMA collection. The history of how it came about is fascinating and touches on the retooling of factories for wartime production, and also in creating this standardized form that's highly adaptable and highly utilitarian and extremely well engineered. It really becomes an instrument of American power, and goes around the world as a symbol of American engineering and American industrial might. And then it continues to have a very long life after the war. The visual model for this vehicle still dictates [the look of] Jeeps made to this very day. As a symbol for American machine art and machine aesthetics, there's nothing better."
1998 Smart ForTwo (acquired 2002)
"The Smart car is another one with an interesting history of how it came together. This thing comes about in the '90s. Originally it was the Swatch car, and the idea was that you've got a completely customizable thing—you could swap out body parts to change the colors like you could with a Swatch watch. And it was this vision for the ultimate city car. It sort of takes us back to the microcars era of the 1950s, when you could have this super tiny, very fuel-efficient car that you could park anywhere, that was very easy to move around, and was highly adapted to an urban environment. It also pushed technology, using plastic for body panels, making it as solidly yet cheaply built as possible."
1965 Porsche 911 (acquired 2017)
"This was a desire to continue the story of the Porsche family and Porsche design from the Beetle. And just like with the E-type, there's an adaptation of racing technology to the mass market. It builds on a lot of the design language established in the Beetle and makes it basically a racing vehicle, one that is beautifully designed and beautifully executed. The example that we acquired had lived its life in California, so it was this German design finding its way into the United States.
"Interestingly, the 911 is the only one of our cars that has all original paint and interior and has never been restored. [As to its value,] it makes no difference to us whether a car is worth a hundred bucks or whether it's worth $100,000. To us, it's: What are the strengths of the design? What is its cultural relevance? What kind of stories does it tell, or allow us to tell?"
1968 Fiat 500 (acquired 2017)
"The Cinquecento is a spectacular little thing. It's often conflated with the Beetle even though they are wildly different kinds of cars. The Cinquecento is truly a city car, and it's three feet shorter in length than the Beetle, and when you put them side by side, you really get a sense of just how much bigger the Beetle is. The Beetle was conceived as a car for the masses, a car for the people, but it was still quite a robust car. The Cinquecento was really tiny, and it straddled this line between a compact car and a microcar. Yet it still is big enough and ample enough to fit four people, and it gets tremendously good gas mileage. It's really so carefully tailored for that Italian market of the 1950s, which is exploding in GDP and purchasing power but they just don't have the space to park, they need to navigate very tight city streets. When you sit inside, it's astounding how much interior volume there is inside that car. And that's because the Fiat team, under Dante Giacosa the lead designer, was really able to strip out everything unnecessary and make it as simple as possible. Even more so than the Beetle, there's a very clearly rationalized interior that makes perfect sense for what it was intended for. I think of that one as a highly customized design for a very specific market. And it was hugely successful."
1973 Citroën DS23 (acquired 2018)
"Our collection is European-dominated but we were missing one very important European country for car manufacturing, and that was France. When we started thinking about the great French cars, Citroën was really dominating the conversation—with the 2CV and the DS and the like. We settled on the DS because it is really this icon of France in the '50s and '60s. It's tied to so many different things, such as French diplomatic service, and the presidential cars, and it's this executive sedan, which is a type of car that we didn't have in our collection. The DS is our first four-door sedan. In addition to being a beautiful aesthetic object, it also has a wealth of technological advancements with really crazy cutting-edge technologies, from the hydraulic suspension to the movable headlights that were on the later models—which is one of the reasons we chose a later example. We felt the DS was really spectacular, especially when compared to sedans being made in places like the United States at the same time. This one was so far and away a more successful design, we thought."