Va Va Vroom! The Art of the Vehicle

Exhibition Curator, Carriage Barn Arts Center, New Canaan, CT, 2015

The automobile’s status as an art form was clinched in 1951 at The Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 8 Automobiles exhibition in New York. This “First Exhibition Anywhere of Automobiles Selected for Design” spotlighted “well-designed American and European automobiles” in recognition of “their excellence as works of art and for their relevance to contemporary problems of passenger car design.” Philip Johnson, MoMA’s Director of the Department of Architecture and Design, heralded that, “An automobile is a familiar 20th-century artifact, and is no less worthy of being judged for its visual appeal than a building or a chair. Automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture, and the refinements of their design are fascinating.”

1946 Cisitalia 202 GT
1946 Cisitalia 202 GT

The Museum’s selection of cars that epitomized “serious thought” about the “esthetics of automobile design” were the 1930 Mercedes-Benz SS, 1949 Cisitalia 202, 1939 James Young Bentley 4 1/4 litre, 1939 Talbot-Lago T23, 1951 Willys-Overland Jeep, 1937 Cord 812, 1948 MG TC and 1941 Lincoln Continental.

Henry Moore’s large-scale, bronze Family Group eyed the ground floor lineup of sculptural automobiles from the Museum’s Sculpture Garden.

The Museum of Modern Art’s subsequent related exhibitions and acquisitions of cars, motorcycles and a helicopter for their permanent collection further underscore the significance of artistry in vehicle development.

Traditional constraints of artistic expression had already been unfettered by artist and writer Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades in which “an ordinary object [was] elevated to the dignity of a work of art by the mere choice of the artist.” Duchamp subverted the originally intended use of an everyday object in 1913 with his first Readymade Bicycle Wheel, following his “happy idea to fasten a bicycle wheel to a kitchen stool and watch it turn.”

Automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles and planes are evocative muses for fine artists who are captivated by their mystery and romance, styling and technology. Symbols of freedom and fantasy, emblems of power and beauty, these “rolling sculptures” have captured our collective imaginations.

Géo Ham, Pau Grand Prix, Formula 2, 1959. Lent by Doug Zumbach.
Géo Ham, Pau Grand Prix, Formula 2, 1959. Lent by Doug Zumbach.

Va Va Vroom! The Art of the Vehicle, an exhibition curated by me, Marianne Brunson Frisch, with Co-Directors Arianne Faber Kolb and Eleanor Flatow at the Carriage Barn Arts Center, Waveny Park, New Canaan, Conn., celebrates this confluence of artistic endeavors. The show, featuring paintings, drawings, photographs, advertising posters, sculptures, vintage die-cast car models, vintage automobile hood ornaments and motorcycles, is on view from April 19-June 14, 2015.

Waveny is long familiar with vehicles—horses, carriages, cars and planes—being embraced by the Lapham family who built their home on the 480-acre countryside property in 1912. Lewis Lapham, a founder of The Texas Company (now Texaco), and his family summered there, seeking reprieve from the heat of New York City. Their stylish and expensive French 1903-04 Charron, Girardot et Voight touring car was housed in the Carriage Barn along with horses and carriages. Son Jack Lapham, his wife and their four children were pilots, landing their planes on Waveny fields. Jack Lapham flew his two-seater Spartan biplane to Waveny from their Texas home in 1928, quite an impressive feat at the time.

The symbiotic influence between fine art and motoring vehicles informs and inspires both avenues of creative media. Va Va Vroom! The Art of the Vehicle highlights their multifaceted interrelationship.

Max Itin, Fins

Max Itin iconizes the apex of 1950s American automobile design in his Fins photographic study of a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado. His works express the “spiritual” nature, the “mythology of cars” as theorized by French philosopher Roland Barthes in his 1957 Mythologies essay “The New Citroën.” Barthes viewed the automobile as “a humanized art,” expounding that “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”

Barthes further opined about the “visual wonder” of viewing newly introduced vehicles in “exhibition halls,” when “the car on show is explored with an intense, amorous studiousness.” Miggs Burroughs invites such an experience in his lenticular photographs that merge two images that alternate as the viewer passes by. His 1948 Indian motorcycle composition expressively imparts the bike’s storied adventures.

Chris Osborne, Paul Newman with the Bob Sharp #33 Datsun 240Z
Chris Osborne, Paul Newman with the Bob Sharp #33 Datsun 240Z

Chris Osborne’s paintings are imbued with the impassioned connection between a driver and his car. Her portrait of Paul Newman honors his track success in Bob Sharp’s #33 Datsun 240Z in the late 1970s and early 1980s before he began competing through his own racing venture.

French illustrator Géo Ham heightened the excitement for European motorcar and motorcycle competitions and aviation shows in the mid-20th century. His drawings and paintings appeared in manufacturers’ catalogs and the French pictorial magazine L’Illustration and his posters promoted car club and racing events, including the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ham’s graphically charged poster for the 1955 Coupes de Paris Automobile at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry as well as other works by him from the collection of Doug Zumbach will be on view. The advertising placard was elevated to a pictorial art form at the turn of the 20th century with the application of artistic sensibilities and improved color lithographic print techniques. Spanning the dichotomy between the utilitarian and purely aesthetic, the modern poster vitalized popular culture. Doug, owner of Zumbach’s Gourmet Coffee, New Canaan, Conn., and founder and organizer of Caffeine & Carburetors’ in-season motoring gatherings, is also lending 1964-65 Dodge and Plymouth Drag Racing Super Stocker and Funny Car 1/24 scale die-cast models that further define Va Va Vroom!

Andre Junget masterfully renders the craftsmanship and styling of the vintage planes, automobiles and motorcycles he depicts in his drawings. His virtuosic attention to detail parallels the quality of design and construction inherent in his subjects. He achieved radiant luminescence and subtle tonalities in Radial Engine through 70-90 hours of drawing, building and rubbing hundreds of layers of applied pencil strokes.

David Barnett’s Airship for Lazy Bones is a fantasized vessel designed to transport the elderly. Fashioned of found objects, wood, metal discs, wire, toy parts, thread and rubber treads, his passenger-propelled zeppelin is seemingly functional yet whimsically impractical.

Jeon Wolf, 1947 Indian Chief. Lent by Buzz Kanter.
Jeon Wolf, 1947 Indian Chief. Lent by Buzz Kanter.

Two-wheeled sculptures take center stage with motorcycles lent by Buzz Kanter, publisher of American Iron Magazine and Motorcycle Rides & Culture. His British 1930s JAP racer showcases the alcohol-powered bikes popular for English speedway racing on closed ash- or dirt-covered oval circuits. The classic American 1947 Indian Chief sports the distinctive Indian-head ornament and features a live rear suspension and an unusual “girder” front fork suspension. Buzz and his 1966 Ducati 250 Monza café racer on display have seen competitive action at vintage motorcycle rallies. Together with a 1918 Harley-Davidson Model J F-head motor and early racing posters, these works demonstrate the inventive ingenuity of engineering and design.

Art and vehicles share a wellspring of creativity that reflects Barthes’ perspective on cars as being “a transformation of life into matter” and belonging to the “realm of fairy tales.” Their spirited dialogue is kindled by a mutual vision that prompts respective artworks that are “above that of nature” and “much more magical than life.”