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Motor Works of Art

American legend John Baldessari uses his signature conceptual style to decorate a German car.

(Photo: Sam Cobb/BMW.)

A BMW sporting graphics envisioned by pioneering conceptual artist John Baldessari received a perilous and peculiar baptism. The car, BMW Art Car No. 19, raced through bitter January rain for 24 hours at Daytona International Speedway—topping 180 mph on the track’s front straight—as its vibrant greens and reds grew dull under dirt, oil, and shredded tire compound.

To subject a valuable piece of art to such conditions would typically provide legal pretext for receivership, or maybe a CAT scan. BMW, however, is a different kind of patron.

“We’re not in the museum business,” says Thomas Girst, BMW Group’s head of cultural engagement and director of the company’s long-running Art Cars program. “The Art Cars are not about turning a car into an object of art. It’s about an intersection.”

Baldessari’s contribution came together in a warehouse in Oxnard, California, not far from the artist’s studio in Santa Monica. The M6 GTLM race car wears his trademark dots on its bumpers, a huge red dot on its roof (to readily identify the car in an aerial TV shot), and various textual elements including the word FAST stenciled on the driver’s side door.

“[The design] is an homage to the inherent beauty of the race car,” says Amanda McGough, project leader at Baldessari’s studio and painter of the M6 GTLM’s panels. “There’s something a little precious about these car parts,” she adds. “You don’t want to mess it up.”

BMW’s Art Cars initiative began in 1975, when a French gallery owner approached BMW’s then chief of Motorsport with the idea of selecting a contemporary artist to paint one of the company’s race cars. Under Girst’s leadership, however, the task of determining the next Art Car’s designer has fallen to a jury—composed of curators from the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, among others. Baldessari, who at 85 remains a prolific and subversive force, was the jury’s unanimous pick for No. 19.

Since its genesis, the BMW Art Car program has attracted contributions from Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jenny Holzer, Jeff Koons, and Alexander Calder, to name-drop only the most recognizable participants. BMW’s notoriously open-ended briefs have provided cover for artistic statements that sometimes implicate the company itself; witness Olafur Eliasson’s ice-cloaked car of 2007, which requires constant refrigeration—a sly indictment of heavy industry’s contribution to global warming.

“The only way to be a trustworthy player in the arts is to give complete control,” Girst says. As the program’s de facto spokesman and cheerleader, Girst—an art historian with books on Marcel Duchamp’s readymades to his credit—relishes the series’s eclecticism.

“You can tell from 300 feet away that the Lichtenstein car is the Lichtenstein car,” he says. “But these days it’s no longer a case of wielding a brush. There’s site-specific art, there’s video art.”

“With an aim to keep up with this trend, BMW reserved No. 18 for Chinese artist Cao Fei, whose Art Car will incorporate multimedia elements when it debuts in Beijing later this spring. Given the perilous lives of BMW’s competition cars, an art fan’s thoughts might turn to the American sculptor John Chamberlain, whose rows of sandwiched car carcasses feature notably at New York’s DIA: Beacon and other institutions. With a wink, Girst acknowledges the work’s inherent risk. “An Art Car can always turn into a Chamberlain sculpture by the end of the race.”

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