Counting myself as a fully paid-up philistine who believes that the perfect BMW comes in perfect, pure white paint, the BMW Art Cars present a challenge. That, I must accept, is exactly what they are meant to do.
It all started when art auctioneer, Herve Poulain, arranged a commission for Alexander Calder to treat his 1975 Le Mans 24hrs race car as a kind of three dimensional metal ‘canvas’. Poulain’s BMW 3.0CSL race car may not have figured strongly in the race but it has found immortality of another kind. Impressed by the striking, colourful result of Calder’s work, BMW has continued the tradition ever since and there are now 15 cars in the Collection, all by different artists.
The Collection is said to express BMW’s “commitment to cultural activities”, being a “promotion of dialogue between art and technology”. To the untrained eye some of the work can seem overly primitive. Yet others, such as Frank Stella’s 1976 “blueprint transferred to the bodywork”, are obviously outstanding and accessible even to diehard petrolheads.
Back in 1979, Andy Warhol’s attempt to “portray speed pictorially” on a Group 4 BMW M1 was also one of the more successful works in the Collection. At any rate, the idea has been much-copied by many race teams ever since, if not always quite so well. David Hockney’s 850CSi of 1995 is completely beyond me, I have to admit, and his description of the work only puzzles me more: “The car has wonderful contours and I followed them”. In a brochure on this car, it states: “He admits to having playfully ‘destroyed’ the outer surfaces of the car, whilst at the same time he respected the overall design”. Hockney added: “Driving and design go hand in hand in a way. Travelling around in a car means experiencing landscapes – which is one of the reasons why I chose green as a colour.”
Even if, thanks to my non-intellectual mind, I have the uncomfortable feeling that some of these artists have set out deliberately to mock me personally, perhaps I should conclude that that is what I deserve. Maybe I should stop and think about the world in a new light. But then, every time, I can’t help thinking that the best BMW is a pure white BMW in which its fashionable styling and its aerodynamic properties mingle to produce a dialogue between art and technology that speaks for itself.
Whether that is true or not, there is no doubt that the The BMW Art Car Collection represents an intriguing body of work – and a priceless one at that – from many of the most celebrated artists of the late 20th Century. It continues to grow and is regularly on tour around the world, as far afield as the Guggenheim in New York and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.