By: Christy Grosz
When race car driver Hervé Poulain asked his friend Alexander Calder to embellish the exterior of his 480hp BMW 3.0CSL for the 1975 Le Mans, Poulain’s car became Calder’s ultimate kinetic sculpture. The resulting colorful expression also launched BMW’s Art Car series, which has grown during the past three decades to comprise 16 cars by artists from several continents, including the most recent from Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, who encased a hydrogen-powered H2R in reflective ice and called it Your Mobile Expectations. For the first time, a select group of these automobiles will travel the globe, including a stop at Vanderbilt Hall in New York’s Grand Central Terminal March 24–April 8.
The vibrantly hued automobile that launched it all in 1975 remains one of the most admired of the BMW Art Car series. Calder, who gained notice with kinetic sculpture, extended his passion for color and shape by applying vivid primary and secondary colors to the metal surfaces of the 3.0 CSL. Since race car driver Poulain and Calder joined forces, the series has become an intrinsic part of the BMW brand, representing its commitment to culture. But the car company has staked its reputation on remaining in motion, which is why it recently gathered curators from Britain’s Tate Modern, Paris’ Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Whitney to discuss how to keep the series relevant to design and art. “Art certainly has moved on. It’s no longer about painting the surface of a car; it’s about turning a design object into an art object,” explains Thomas Girst, BMW’s head of cultural communications, pointing to the 2008 Eliasson ice-sculpture H2R as the next generation of Art Cars.
When Frank Stella took on the task of painting the 750hp 3.0CSL for the 1976 Le Mans, the BMW Art Car series could barely be considered a series, with Calder’s car being the only other member of the elite group. But Stella’s passion for racing made him a clear choice for the sophomore entry. He transferred his signature grid directly to the surface of the vehicle, giving viewers the impression that he had devised a blueprint for cutting out the car and crafting another object. Stella rejected such intense analysis of his work, choosing to let the end result speak for itself. BMW as a company has a similar philosophy when it comes to choosing new artists to feature in the series. “It’s important to note that 16 cars have been done in 30 years,” says Girst. “We don’t have a time schedule where we say, ‘Let’s churn out an Art Car every three years.’ It’s important to have a loose trajectory.”
Roy Lichtenstein employed his trademark comic-book-style Benday dot technique when he painted the 300hp 320i racing version in 1977. A jubilant sunrise is prominent on the driver’s-side door, demonstrating the artist’s intention to portray what the car sees. “You could list all of the things a car experiences—the only difference is that this car mirrors all these things even before it takes to the road,” Lichtenstein told BMW. The artist’s decision to give his Art Car a different perspective parallels a facet of the BMW Art Car series that has developed over the years, according to Girst. “This involvement with the arts (and) with artists gives us the possibility of presenting these cars in an environment that doesn’t usually showcase cars,” he explains, pointing to the February exhibition of Art Cars at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, in which the Stella, Lichtenstein, Warhol and Rauschenberg cars were shown in an outdoor atrium adjacent to the museum.
As the Father of Pop art, Andy Warhol built his reputation on turning everyday objects into works of art, which is, perhaps, why he embraced so completely the task of creating an Art Car for BMW. Rather than turning the 470hp M1 over to his factory, Warhol did all of the painting himself directly on the car. As he hand-colored the automobile, he didn’t look at the M1 as a static object—he considered what it would look like in motion. “I tried to portray speed pictorially,” the artist told BMW at the time. “If a car is moving really quickly, all the lines and colors are blurred.” While augmenting an automobile fits perfectly into Warhol’s philosophy on art, his red, green and blue art machine has not been content to sit on the shelf for the past three decades. In 2008 Warhol’s creation helped BMW celebrate the 30th anniversary of the company’s M1 by taking a few laps around the track at the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Munich—with no less than car aficionado Stella in the copilot’s seat.
All four of the first Art Cars raced at the 24-hour Le Mans, but with the introduction of Robert Rauschenberg’s 635 CSi in 1986, the initiative took a turn. Rauschenberg’s car was the first production model to enter the group, and the artist envisioned it as a mobile museum. Rather than employing found objects in his signature collage technique, he re-created antique plates on the hubcaps, The Great Odalisque (1819) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres on one side and Portrait of a Young Man (circa 1530s) by Bronzino on the other. “The most iconic cars—the Rauschenberg, the Lichtenstein, the Warhol and the Stella—are part of the Art Car World Tour that originated in Germany in late 2003 and has been all over Asia, Africa, Russia, some other European countries and is now making it over the Atlantic,” Girst says. In addition, Rauschenberg’s car inspired the artist to create a six-part series of enameled aluminum panels called Beamer, which was shown with the car in a 2002 exhibition in Naples, Fla.