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BMW art cars

Symbiosis between BMW cars and art

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The automobile art collection by BMW looks back on more than 35 years of continuity and success. It is international in scope and immensely diverse in its artistic expression. As one of the icons of the 20th century, here the automobile is given an almost auratic status. The BMW Art Cars range between the art forms of painting, graphics art, sculpture and design. In recent years, art critics have maintained that painting – the free experimentation with form and color – is dead. The three projects which emerged in the 21st century offer new perspectives on the collection. With Jenny Holzer’s thought-provoking “Truisms” and the ice installation by Olafur Eliasson, which pushes the boundaries of what can be done in an exhibition, the BMW Art Car philosophy claims an extremely high artistic level.


The father of the BMW Art Car Collection

The BMW Art Car Collection has its roots in motor sport, however. Every auto race was and is a celebration of speed – and from the very beginning a celebration of color. First the racing cars proudly sported the colors of their country, and then the racing teams and sponsors covered the dynamic bodies with brand names and advertising banners. Today, the racing world of WTCC, Formula 1 and DTM would only be half as exciting if they had to make do without full and vibrant colors. The BMW Art Cars have also sprung from this world of motor sport. The idea which sparked it all came from the French auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain, who wanted to combine two worlds. So he spoke to his friend Alexander Calder and persuaded him to design a toy car and a scale model. He found an ideal artist in Calder, and in Joachen Neerpasch, then head of racing sport at BMW, he found a partner open-minded about art on the side of the company. The recognizable link between art and auto racing was crucial: many of the Art Cars have since taken part in the legendary 24 hour Le Mans race – even at the risk that this can potentially end in the artwork being destroyed. Despite giving some curators sleepless nights, this allows the artworks to prove their roadworthiness and racing ability at least once.

The key discussions between Poulain and Neerpasch prove that neither artists nor designers were the initiators of the Art Car concept. It was motor sport alone, which has nothing in common with the visual arts, that was given the opportunity to create the right environment. The first platform for the BMW Art Cars originated neither from the atmosphere of documental or Biennale nor from the loft of a Pop Artist: it was the asphalt of a racetrack.

“I am crazy about beauty and speed”: Hervé Poulain lived his creed like almost nobody else. If the Frenchman wasn’t to be found wielding a hammer behind the auction desk, then he was sitting at the wheel of a racing car. He took part 11 times in the Le Mans 24-hour race alone, including several times as the driver of an Art Car personally. As Poulain explains looking back the deal with Art Cars was that BMW would provide the automobiles and absorb the costs for the conversion and race entry, and the Hervé Poulain / Guy Loudmer partnership would organize the artists. This is what happened with Calder, Stella, Lichtenstein and Warhol. It was also Poulain who entered the Art Cars at Le Mans together with BMW. “None of the four artists received any money. They did it out of friendship and because of good relationships”, explained Poulain in an interview. Poulain has written five books about art, including “L’art et l’automobile” and “Mes Pop Cars”, a work focusing mainly on the first four BMW Art Cars. With the art Car concept, Poulain paved the way for the integration of art into industrial society.

BMW Art Car Collection

Whereas the BMW brand promises “Sheer Driving Pleasure”, its four wheeled artworks communicate “the joy of form and color” in a particular way. What began in 1975 as a unique artistic experiment came to be particularly popular and was repeated several times. It was only afterwards that the concept gradually formed itself into a collection – a collection which to this day remained unique in its nature in the automobile world.

For the BMW Group, the artifacts – now numbering 17 – are cultural highlights and engaging ambassadors for the brand. Wherever they are shown to the public, they are guaranteed to attract attention. They therefore penetrate scenarios which are still off limits to a normal fleet of cars. BMW Art Cars have already been presented in sacred temples of the muses, such as the Louvre in Paris or the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao. Because it has these artworks on wheels, BMW does not keep any other art collection of its own, and nor does it need to. Is there a connection between art and automobile then which is more authentic than the BMW Art Cars? BMW remains true to itself and its product range – because the Art Cars are all creations from BMW’s very own product line. The fact that the body metamorphoses to become the plastic medium carrying the image, a kind of preformed canvas, is bewilderingly simple in its logic. Beneath a skin of colors, lines smudges and dots, the original form of the automobile design shines through. The “second skin” of the painting does not dematerialize the car. The eye of the observer sweeps over the surface of the Art Car, searches for incisive motifs, picturesque sections of roof and engine hood, and time and again ultimately meets with a taillight, a side window or a hubcap. Despite all the artistry, the automobile is still present.

The act of artistic redesign raises the automobile to the status of an objet d’art. In order to be able to be exhibited and observed at leisure, even the fastest vehicle somehow becomes anything but mobile. The expression of permanent readiness to drive and perform which is inherent in BMW design gives way to artistic expression here.

The world of automobile design and the painting world intermingle in only a very few Art Cars. With the exception of Cesar Manrique, who subordinated his artistic expression to the auto design and even accentuated it with the selective use of lines, the direct contouring of the body has no recognizable influence on the forms used by the artists who take on the sheet of metal. Sandro Chia, who in 1992 painted the prototype of a BMW 3 Series racing touring car, remarked that it was a challenge to finish what others had started. In contrast to him, Warhol claimed of the BMW M1 that the car was better than his artwork…

With BMW, the essence of the Art Car Collection cannot be separated from its owner. From the very beginning, it achieved the status of art which made it the object of desire, even for contemporary artists who enjoy a high standing in the international art world. However, even Jeff Koons admitted in an interview in 2003 that he was dying to paint a BMW Art Car to ascend to the pantheon of great masters such as Warhol and Lichtenstein. Whoever applies the artistic vision to the Art Cars of the future can rest assured that they will be included in the ancestral gallery of superlatives. Disciples of the Art Car circle are well aware of its exclusivity. Especially since respectable colleagues such as James Rosenquist and Keith Haring were not given the opportunity and BMW sometimes lets years go by before another convincing Art Car concept is found.

Not all metalwork which is touched by a paintbrush automatically becomes art, much less officially recognized as an Art Car. There is a considerable number of obscure projects which emerged as part of marketing campaigns. There are also the motorbikes and second hand cars which are “improved” and offered to BMW AG in their hundreds. In these cases, the criteria are set down: BMW does not purchase any completed items but commissions new art. Juries of leading curators of important museums from around the world select an artist. Only then are talks begun. The designated creator of a new Art Car is always given the necessary artistic freedom. During his work, he will constantly grapple with BMW brand and the new high tech product. It is difficult to imagine, but the fact is that there are no large fees with deals such as this. At most, the artist can afterwards be seen pulling up in a new BMW. What motivates the artist to dabble in the subject of the Art Car is presumably the joy of artistic exploration on an unusual, three-dimensional object, a substrate which has long since become socially acceptable and suitable for museums.

With its vehicle gallery, BMW paints a vivid picture of a chapter of moving automobile and design history. Racing cars and series automobile and design history. Racing cars and series automobiles, Saloons, Coupes and Roadsters tread the boards – all contemporary witnesses of a modern civilization and mobile lifestyle. Seventeen artists from five continents have so far contributed to the particular diversity and aesthetic of the collection. The substrate is a performed product of industrial design. It is such an exciting transformation when patterns which have previously adorned African huts are suddenly used to decorate a BMW 535, when a V12 Le Mans racing car is transformed into a white banner with large, powerful words.

The scope of what is presented includes both the representational and the abstract, ciphers, letters and pictorial quotations.

We discover landscapes, faces and animals – as well as large scale patterns and decorations. Anyone practicing “art on the automobile” does not get past the theme of speed and this was even the case with Ken Done and Warhol. The master of Pop Art expressed it aptly: “I have tried to give a vivid depiction of speed. If a car is really fast, all contours and colors will become blurred.” For other artists, the shell of the body is nothing more than an indifferent skin for visions and projections, a painting surface for pattern and ornamentation with its own rules. The different perspectives taken on the automobile are also interesting: for Chia it is much admired object, with Hockney the eye penetrates the outer shell and, like an X-ray, encounters an inner life.

Since the appearance of the first automobile at the end of the 19th century, the visual arts have become devoted to everything that races around on wheels. The automobile and mobility were and still are the subject of painting, graphic art, photographic art, statuary art and sculpture. However, the automobile has generally been the object of criticism and there have been relatively few admirers in the art scene. Far more artists saw in the automobile the embodiment of the consumer and disposable society the protagonist of an energetic machine of destruction. It was only with the pop culture of the 1960s that a rather more relaxed relationship developed with everyday culture, and alongside it, the automobile, too.

Following the pop Art era, which was mainly limited to North American artists, the Art Car strategy also took a significant change of course: at the beginning of the 1980s, the BMW Art Car Collection became more diverse. Artists of different nationalities and with different styles were added. The idea of the Art Car of the five continents was born: the multicultural image of the rolling works of art which was consequently pursued reflects the successful expansion of Bayerische Motoren Werke, which had become established in many countries. In addition, the automobiles which were transformed into works of art were no longer solely from the world of auto racing but also from standard production.

Source: BMW Classic live 01.2010.

2010 has been the year for getting back to the roots, back to painting racing cars. American contemporary artist Jeff Koons has painted the BMW M3 GT2 racing car which was presented to the public just days before the legendary Le Mans race. The car was very well received by the audience and it was a true "magnet" in Le Mans for photographers and racing fans. Unfortunately the M3 GT2 has retired early in the race due to technical problems.