The first BMW Art Car was designed by the American sculptor Alexander Calder in 1975. Commissioned by Calder’s friend, the race-car driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain, it was one of the artist’s last works of art (he passed away in 1976), and it put his lifelong commitment to kinetic sculpture into its fastest form: Poulain raced Calder’s car that year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race in Central France.
Over the next 40 years, 17 artists—including David Hockney, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, and Andy Warhol— created BMW Art Cars, the history of which is now documented in the new book BMW Art Cars. From the competitive racing models by Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and Warhol to the industrial-ecological critique of Olafur Eliasson’s 2006 BMW H2R (which the artist encapsulated in a hauntingly engineered igloo), BMW’s Art Cars trace a history of complex mutual admiration between engineering and the avant-garde, between what J.G. Ballard called “perverse technology and new sexuality.” When asked about her 1999 V12 LMR model, sloganned with “KEEP ME FROM WHAT I WANT,” Holzer claimed, “The intoxication of motorized speed appears to be every bit as strong as sexual fulfillment,” whereas Robert Rauschenberg admitted of creating his 1986 635 CSi, “Taking the first step was extremely difficult. It was like being alone in a room with a beautiful virgin.”
Yet as times change, so does our relationship to mobility and the complications it entails. For Eliasson’s Art Car, the artist transformed BMW’s hydrogen-powered race car in a skin of steel mesh, mirror-coated stainless steel, and many layers of ice to focus attention to the relation between car design and global warming. “It was a real science project inside BMW,” Eliasson said. “It’s about environmental and sustainable questions in relation to transportation and mobility.” Thus the BMW Art Car is also a chronicle of a century-long transition from technology- and speed-obsessed art to the fragility of a kind of post-ecological détournement.
BMW Art Cars (Ostfildern, 2014) is published by Hatje Cantz.