Sometimes the only way to high art is through deep pockets.
Perhaps this occurred to Andy Warhol when BMW asked him to paint its M1 Group 4 race car in 1977. Warhol, already a superstar, was constantly fascinated with the melding of the commercial and the artistic. BMW was happily molding America as its largest export market.
In the past 40 years, there have been just 17 BMW Art Cars, on average one every three years. Out of all of its Art Cars, this M1 — already nearly priceless as an automobile, let alone one breathed upon by the most recognizable name in modern art — is BMW’s most expensive and valuable. Recently, it was shown for just two days at Paris Photo LA at Paramount Studios, the prestigious art festival’s first foray outside France.
It was there that we spoke with Thomas Girst, whose official title is "Head of Cultural Engagement" for BMW Group. He earned a PhD in Art History from Hamburg University and studied at NYU, where he focused on the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp. At BMW, he acts as the curator of its collection of Art Cars. Girst readily admitted that the reason BMW’s cultural department exists — the reason he is able to stay employed — is purely to further the aims of BMW: "It would be negligent to say that we’re doing this for philanthropic or altruistic reasons, it’s really about the image, the reputation, the visibility of the brand, as well as, really, being a good corporate citizen.
"Because the way companies are being looked at from the outside now doesn’t really have to do with the core business, but what do they give back to society? So, culture is one of these things."
There’s an air of validity in such honesty. Girst never was a car guy, but he slowly became one: After watching the engineers and designers in Munich collaborate on BMWs, he came to understand why artists in the early 1900s fell in love with the automobile. A great, tremendous statue, "our sculpture of the 20th century," according to the Futurist Manifesto of 1909, a statement extolling a new artistic philosophy. It was the world’s splendor "enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed –" one of the first public love letters to the automobile. Certainly the famed BMW designer Chris Bangle thought so, drawing his inspiration from the Manifesto and citing automobiles as "mobile works of art." One can only help but wonder the discussions Bangle and Girst might have had in the BMW staff-room cafeteria.
Warhol also dabbled in automotive experimentation. His fascination with Pop Art and seemingly innocuous objects expressed itself in Campbell’s Soup and Elvis Presley, but he also touched upon cars; much like his work Eight Elvises, he created images of Pontiacs, Cadillacs, Buicks. All of these were created in the early 1960s, just when he was starting to lay the groundwork of his legendary Factory. "The reason I’m painting this way," he said in 1963, "is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do … everybody should be a machine."
It’s ironic that Warhol himself laid paint on the M1, explained Girst, as his Factory was partially about detaching the artist from the work. The traditional artist was dead, he theorized; painting by hand was a relic, and art could be made on an assembly line.
But then this was a car, a product reproduced perfectly on an actual assembly line. Warhol, painting it by hand and by himself, stood in stark contrast to his work at the Factory. Nick Perry writes in Hyperreality and Global Culture, "confronted with so consummate a work of mechanical reproduction, both Warhol’s artistic practice and his verbal response were tantamount to confirming the irrelevance of the traditionally modern conception of the artist … Warhol observed that ‘I adore the car, it’s much better than a work of art.’ "
Prior artists had painted a scale model of the car, then had their artwork laboriously transferred to the full-size model. But Warhol insisted on painting the car himself, dipping his fingers into the paint, daubing it on with a foam brush, smelling its intoxicating fumes, feeling the bodywork with his own hands. His signature is on the car, signed with his finger right by the exhaust.
Warhol needed just 24 minutes to paint the car, in a shop outside of Munich. By the time the television crews had rolled in, he was finished. "Should I paint another car?" he asked, pointing at a brand-new BMW, one that was belonged to the man who owned the paint shop.
"Over my dead body," the owner replied.
"He hates me when I tell that story," said Girst, "because he’s still very embarrassed about that — that he didn’t let Andy Warhol paint his car, and turn it into an artwork."
Warhol’s paint gleams in the spotlights, its hues contrasting sharply like a cartographer’s first draft; streaks of different hues the width of a finger scatter across the solid patches like creased and crumpled paper. "I tried to portray a sense of speed," said Warhol. "When a car is going really fast all the lines and colors become a blur."
Warhol painted some additional body panels in those 24 minutes — spare bumpers and side moldings, not as souvenirs but for a very specific purpose. Two years later, in 1979, the car entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Manfred Winkelhock, Marcel Mignot and Hervé Poulain driving.
We have Hervé Poulain to thank for this intersection of avant-garde — sometimes as bizarre as encasing the corporate product in a trellis of ice — and corporate governance. Poulain loved contemporary art as much as he loved racing; he was already a successful art collector an auctioneer. In 1975, he had approached BMW motorsports manager and father of the M1 Jochen Neerpasch with an unusual proposition: What if they raced a BMW that was painted by a great artist? Neerpasch, it turned out, was just as crazy on the idea as Poulain. In 1975, the sculptor Alexander Calder painted the first BMW Art Car — the 3.0 CSL, known affectionately as the "Batmobile." Calder was already a sculptor, the man who invented the mobile, in fact — and what was the BMW if not a kinetic sculpture of another kind?
Poulain personally drove Calder’s Batmobile in Le Mans that year, along with Jean Guichet and Sam Posey, the latter a legend in himself. The car suffered driveshaft issues and was retired early, and was never raced again. Calder died a year later, in 1976; the BMW was his last work.
Warhol’s M1 was more successful. With Poulain, Winkelhock and Mignot behind the wheel, the car successfully completed 288 laps at Sarthe — coming in 6th overall, and 2nd in its class. During the course of the race it made contact numerous times, which is when Warhol’s spare bumpers came in handy. (Primered bodywork on the M1 itself would be as a mole on the Mona Lisa.) Next to Roy Lichenstein’s Group 5 320i. It finished first in its class, also driven by Poulain — this was the most successful Art Car to date.
There was something special about the first four Art Cars: They were based exclusively on race cars raced at the grueling endurance level, and always after they were painted. Priceless works on parade in the quickest way possible, they captured the public’s imagination before the public would bicker loudly about what truly constituted art. They fueled a discussion kicked off by Girst’s beloved Duchamp.
Poulain continued to be a successful art auctioneer and race-car driver, penning five books on the intersection of the two. Neerpasch went on to manage Sauber-Mercedes during its Le Mans conquests, where he discovered a young, obscure upstart by the name of Michael Schumacher.
That brings us neatly to today. When the Warhol M1 was brought to Hockenheim in 2009 to celebrate Thirty Years of the BMW M1, artist and Art Car alumnus Frank Stella drove the M1 in an homage race. Girst was aghast. "I said, ‘look, we shouldn’t drive that car because it’s worth so much and it’s such a great artwork. I’m going to tie myself to the car like how Greenpeace ties itself to trees.’ "
But the cars belong on a racetrack, after all, something that Girst eventually acknowledged. Still, what’s the value of Warhol’s M1? We asked Girst. "Well," he laughed, "we would ask you to estimate that."
The car still runs, its mighty 470-hp M88 inline-six intact, but there are ignition problems and the car hasn’t been fired up since that 2009 outing. Not to say that it’s not busy: Inquiries for Art Cars come worldwide. It is shipped from museum to museum depending on which curator organizes an artist’s retrospective — no dealership displays here, Girst stressed.
Maybe that ignition remains broken for a reason. "Can you imagine someone driving off with it?" Girst smiled. "It would be the greatest art heist of the century."
[Text from Autoweek]
This Lego miniland-scale BMW M1 Procar Racer – Art Car #4 (1979 – And Warhol), has been created for Flickr LUGNuts’ 90th Build Challenge, – "Fools Rush In!", –
to the subtheme – "Art Car 2015!". The 90th build challenge presenting 13 different subthemes to choose to build to.
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