A year ago, I walked into a black-tie party at the new Renzo Piano-designed entrance pavilion at the Los Angles County Museum of Art and thought to myself: this place looks exactly like a parking garage. The fact that the open-air structure is officially named the BP Pavilion after lead sponsor British Petroleum only underscores the thought—it's like a satirical send-up of corporate philanthropy from Christopher Buckley's novel Thank you for Smoking.
Now LACMA has found the perfect objects to park in its art garage: cars, of course. As befits the capital of American car culture, LACMA is the first stop on a nationwide tour of BMW's Art Cars, actual Beamers "customized" by prominent artists. It's a slight exhibition, to be sure, but fun and off-beat, and--best of all--the show is free.
BMW began the Art Car program in 1975, when French racecar driver Herve Poulain commissioned Alexander Calder to paint his chariot for the Le Mans 24-hour Race. Artists who've participated since include David Hockney, Jenny Holzer and Olafur Eliasson. The four cars on display at LACMA—by Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein—show what can be done with two tons of steel and few dabs of paint.
Stella's car (1976) is overlaid with a grid, as if the car were wearing the blueprint of itself. Warhol (1979) created the impression of speed with "racing stripes" made by dragging his brush down the car's flanks. The Lichtenstein-mobile (1977) comes closest to becoming a rolling sculpture: the artist's comic-book graphics seem inseparable from the racecar's spoilers and flares. One can imagine a dialogue bubble on the side: "Zoom!"
My favorite, though, is Rauschenberg's ride (1986). The late Rauchenberg was a witty and worldly artist, and he decaled his car with a collage of older masterpieces that relates a sly story: The driver-side door shows Bronzino's Portrait of a Young Man—he looks proud to be behind the wheel of a luxury automobile—while the passenger door features the young man's lovely companion, Ingres' Grande Odalisque. Perhaps the two are driving to dinner: Rauschenberg's hubcaps are copies of antique porcelain plates.
The Art Car program is ongoing, and last fall I watched South African artist Robin Rhode create the newest one at a vast sound stage in LA. Rhode's innovation was that instead of painting on the car, he painted with the car. As an assistant drove a BMW specially outfitted with paint canisters across a canvas the size of a football field, Rhode used remote controls to spray colors from nozzles mounted beneath the car. The results, which will eventually be displayed at New York's Grand Central Terminal starting March 24, resembled Japanese calligraphy from a giant's hand, or perhaps a front-wheel drive Brice Marden.
Photos by Jim Smeal.