The BMW art car #19 was revealed as a static sculpture at Miami Beach Art Basel in November. The 585hp M6 GTLM, painted by the celebrated Californian conceptual artist John Baldessari, is expected to compete on 28 and 29 January in the grueling 24-hour marathon on the race track of Rolex 24 at Daytona Beach Florida for what is expected to be a spectacular sight. After all, it’s not every day we get to see a work of art by a living legend come alive in an endurance race.
Since its inception in 1975, the BMW art car scheme has attracted a host of international artists. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, David Hockney, Alexander Calder and more recently Olafur Eliasson and Jeff Koons have all contributed to this unique project with the majority witnessing their canvas on wheels take to the race track.
John Baldessari translating his minimalism to the #19 BMW art car
Baldessari, 85, is a committed minimalist and for his art car he remains restrained working with a limited color palette – red, blue, yellow and green. The conceptual artist is known for adding a touch of playful satire to his work through text and so here painted boldly on the side of the M6 is the word “FAST” as a reference to the powerful engine that lies beneath of bonnet.
He admits he entered uncharted territory here, but that the ideas all came at once: “The red dot on the roof so you can see it from above, FAST on one side and a picture of the car on the other side. I like the ambiguity, having two-dimension and three-dimension at the same time,” he says.
“What we got from Baldessari is a Baldessari,” says Thomas Girst, noting that the Californian loves the fact that his art will take part in a real car race. Girst has been directing the art car project since 2004 as well as the marque’s numerous other cultural activities including the much-acclaimed BMW Art Journey and Tate Modern Live.
He confesses that he typically lets the chosen artist do their own thing with the art cars. It helps prevent the commercialization of the project. Of course, these art cars are excellent marketing tools for BMW, yet Girst has tried to conduct the project so that each art car reveals something about its time in history.
These are also personal expressions. “What Baldessari did was take a car and turn it into an advertisement for himself,” says Girst. “Whereas Koons was delighted to become part of this pantheon of great artists, the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein, Baldessari viewed it more as a race. They are all competition for him,” he smiles.
The art car alumni boast some of the greatest artists of our time. Their world is far removed from the auto world and even though some have shown a strong visceral connection to the car and motor racing, what they bring to the occasion is never predictable, sometimes socially relevant and almost always visually thrilling.
Danish artist, Eliasson, for instance, used the occasion to raise awareness of alternative, renewable energy sources and so his static sculpture had no wheels and never raced. On the other hand, the Koons collaboration was an ode to the beauty of speed. I recall meeting the American artist in Paris in 2010 as he revealed his art car – a tremendous riot of colors, a pop art M3 GT2 that raced at 24-hour Le Mans that year. He told me he was translating the power and the energy of the car with his colors noting, “it is about painting your own fantasy”.
Later this year the Chinese digital artist, 38-year-old Cao Fei, will explore virtual and augmented reality in her art car, project #18 (18 being her and the Chinese lucky number, hence the reveres order). “Cao Fei is so intelligent,” confesses Girst, “so focused and so serious in what she does in terms of her professional take on things.”
BMW’s decision to do two art cars simultaneously and such very different interpretations will no doubt add to the discourse. “It is high time that both augmented and virtual reality are being toyed with,” Girst says, adding: “She is fearless!”
Girst says, with the project BMW aims to push things to the limit. “Artists are no longer about wielding brushes. Cao Fei, just like the U.S.S. Enterprise, is boldly taking us where no one has gone before. She is taking the series into the 21st century.”
John Baldessari and Cao Fei 2017 BMW art car artists
But will it challenge our perception of the car? Girst hopes so. “The great thing about the series is that each car defines a moment in time not only in regards to the art but also in regards to the car itself.”
Most importantly the art car collaborations are a medium to explore contemporary art and culture on a global scale. “Whether it is Eliasson ordering a walk-in freezer to present his car in,” says Girst, “or Koons whose car, when looked at close-up, will tell an amazing story nobody has picked up on yet, the thrills are there. Take your time and explore! That, after all, is what makes life worth living.”
This article was first published in Forbes