The radical BMW Art Car series, initiated in 1975, has a cache of 19 cars, each painted by some of the world’s best-known artists.
Adrenaline-pumping racer cars and art, a rather solo pursuit, haven’t been spoken about in the same breath traditionally. Rarely have you seen a car major hobnobbing with artists or big names from the art world; largely, luxury cars tend to stick to equally flamboyant fashion shows or hitch their wagon to innovative design exhibitions in Europe.
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But in 1975, French racing driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain decided to fuse his two great passions, art and speed, in a racing car. He got his friend, American artist and sculptor Alexander Calder, to use his BMW 3.0 CSL as a canvas; he was supported by a rather enthusiastic Jochen Neerpach, BMW’s head of motorsport then. And BMW Art Cars became a tradition. To date, 19 BMW cars, both racing and regular production vehicles, have been used by some of the biggest artists as their canvasses and have come to be termed metaphorically as ‘rolling sculptures’.
Among them are Frank Stella, an American painter and printmaker, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, artist, director and producer Andy Warhol, Japanese painter Matazo Kayama, and the poster boy of 21st-century pop art Jeff Koons. Poulain, now 79, never did think that his unusual concept would prove to be such an enduring idea. He says, “It is perhaps because these art cars look like moving sculptures. Imagine a beautiful car being painted by some of the best artists; it is an idea that belongs to the realm of a museum.” Many of these cars are housed in the BMW Museum in Munich.
BMW Art Car by Alexander Calder (1975 BMW 3.0 CSL).
In the past, four of these striking art cars have made their way to the India Art Fair, an annual bonanza in New Delhi with art galleries, dealers and museums as participants. 2020 will also see another BMW ‘rolling sculpture’ glisten under the winter sky at the NSIC Exhibition Complex.
Marking BMW’s fifth year at India Art Fair is Andy Warhol’s 1979 work on BMW M1, a showcasing which will be complemented by The Warhol Talk — the global head of BMW Cultural Engagement, Thomas Girst, in conversation with Jose Carlos Diaz, the chief curator at The Andy Warhol Museum. Diaz, recalling the time when Warhol painted the gorgeous M1, a mid-engined sports car produced by BMW from 1978 to 1981, says the director, known for his iconic Campbell Soup Cans work, was approached to supervise the production of this particular art car. But so excited was he about the idea, that he decided to paint the car himself, from scratch, in his characteristic pop art style. The car was raced only once, in 1979 at Le Mans, the world’s oldest sports car race. Warhol is quoted to have said, “I tried to portray speed pictorially. If a car is moving quickly, all the lines and colours are blurred.”
For BMW, 2020 is also an opportunity to launch the BMW Art Journey initiative in India, under which young artists are chosen to pick one destination to travel to and paint from. This year’s chosen artist, Lu Yang from China, is headed to India to research and paint the ancient dance-theatre form, Kerala’s Kathakali.
Among the other cars that have been exhibited at the India Art Fair over the years is British artist David Hockney’s work, BMW’s 14th art car, in 1995. He treated the BMW 850 CSi with an X-ray vision: The engine of the car and the different parts were painted on the body, a stylised suction vent on the bonnet and the contours of a driver on the door. The process leading up to the final work lasted several months, as Hockney afforded a certain kind of transparency to the car. On the surface was also a dachshund; his dogs kept him company while he was painting and it was natural for him to recognise their patience and companionship thus.
In 2017, BMW brought to India its 13th ‘rolling sculpture’ — Italian artist Sandro Chia’s masterpiece. The artist, who was born in Florence and lived between New York, London and Tuscany, painted imagery in contrast to the often tough milieu of the two big cities to which he was invariably drawn. Mythical figures embedded in a timeless, bucolic Arcadian setting were painted on a BMW M3 GTR. “I have created both a picture and a world. Everything that is looked at closely turns into a face. A face is a focus, a focus of life and the world,” said the artist, who remembers covering his family and friends’ cars with graffiti while growing up. “I painted faces and a sea of intensive colours until the car’s whole bodywork had been completely covered.”
If you ever end up making your way to Munich or even stumble upon an exhibition that features the BMW art cars series (they travel all across the world for art fairs, biennales and exhibitions), here is the best of the best of the rolling sculptures you must try and experience.
Roy Lichtenstein, 320i Group 5, 1977:
The American pop artist painted pretty yellow and black dots and lines, which to him, represented the road, pointing the direction for the car to move in. The design also shows the American countryside scenery as it passes by. The car was unveiled at the Pompidou Centre and raced at Le Mans, where it finished first in its class and ninth overall.
Robert Rauschenberg, 635 CSi, 1986: In the 1980s, the art car went post-modern. The American artist and graphic designer used works by other artists, including Man of the World by 16th century Florentine artist Bronzino. The right side of the car bears the image of an Ingres painting and the left-hand side of the bodywork is painted with one of Bronzino’s works, surrounded by Rauschenberg’s pictures of swamp grass in the Everglades. The hub caps have been painted with images of ancient decorative plates. Rauschenberg’s art car inspired his later Beamer series, which used silkscreens originally made for the 635 CSi.
Cesar Manrique, BMW 730i, 1990: The architect, sculptor, designer and painter fused his technical and artistic talents to create an art car that married the concepts of speed and aerodynamics with that of aesthetics. The artist, while unveiling his work, said his idea was to offer the impression of being able to glide through the air without any resistance. His art car features rolling, sweeping lines and lively colours, symbolising graceful motions.
Jenny Holzer, BMW V12 LMR, 1999: The American neo-conceptual artist brought the art of words to the BMW art car. She used reflective chrome lettering and phosphorescent colours to ensure that the characteristic BMW colours remained visible at all times during the 24-hour Le Mans race. During the day, the letters of the slogans such as ‘Protect me from what I want’ reflected the sky, while at night the foil released the stored daylight as the colour blue.
Olafur Eliasson, BMW H2R, 2007: This striking work by Danish-Icelandic artist and environmentalists, known for large-scale installations, is among the most radical of the art cars. Eliasson’s work is based on the record-winning, hydrogen-powered H2R research vehicle. Two layers of metal covered in ice hide the car’s form. In a bid to reflect on the relationship between global warming and the automotive industry, the artist removed the car’s outer shell and replaced it with a complex skin made of steel and layers of ice. The car, for obvious reason, is never taken out of its frozen environment in Munich.
Cao Fei, BMW M6 GT3, 2017: BMW and Chinese artist Cao Fei’s brought augmented reality technology to the world of art cars. For the company’s first ‘digital art car’ the multimedia artist created a parallel world, a sort of time travel contraption, on a BMW M6.
A video focusing on a time-travelling spiritual practitioner and augmented reality features colourful light particles. The BMW M6 GT3 racecar was presented in its original carbon black and paid tribute to the carbon fibre structure of the racecar chassis. Fei’s use of a non-reflective black incorporated the car into the possibilities of the digital world.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
Read her columns here.
First Published: IST