Pop Art and fast cars collide to create a psychedelic canvas on a moving gallery, writes The Wheel Deal
Close your eyes for a second and think of a racetrack. And not just any racetrack but the Circuit de la Sarthe; that perilous 13.6-kilometer ring of asphalt on which the grueling Le Mans 24-Hour endurance race takes place every year. Now hit the rewind button and spool back to the Kodachrome ‘70s where men with T-shades and lamb-chop sideburns circumnavigated it with scant regard for their wellbeing. Back then when safety pretty much started and ended with the belt, the pursuit of speed was a risky business and many drivers paid the ultimate price chasing down champagne dreams of success.
Much to be expected, this environment attracted a unique breed of person; ballsy juggernauts who, endowed with above-average levels of testosterone, weren’t scared of an occasional tussle with Death’s ever-present Reaper. Unashamedly macho, you’d expect members of this Golden Age of motor racing to be de rigueur with smoking and drinking and weekend flings with grid girls but certainly not something as sensitive or intellectual as fine art. But, and quite astonishingly, a weird relationship sparked between these two polarized disciplines that culminated in a fascinating, 35-year love affair.
The year was 1975 and a French racing driver with an unusual passion for art, Hervé Poulain, came up with the idea of turning his BMW 3.0CSL Le Mans car into the fastest moving canvas the world had ever seen. No doubt a little eccentric, the man made use of his contacts and quickly convinced his renowned sculptor and sometimes-painter friend, Alexander Calder, to work his magic across the swooping panels of his high-powered sports coupé.
Calder, an American who had already used his talents to transform the skin of a jet airliner, set about “defacing” the car in question with a most killer combination of abstract swathes of colour and daring curves. The end result not only blew the doors off Munich’s bigwigs but – their CSL now the talk of the racing paddock – ultimately set in the motion the intriguing BMW Art Car program that continues rousing culture-savvy petrolheads to this day.
No doubt thrilled with the attention Calders’s brushstrokes brought to their brand, the Blue Propellerheads decided to make an even greater statement by commissioning some of the heaviest human artillery the then art scene had to offer. And rather aptly, Roy Lichtenstein, the undisputed father of the American Pop Art movement, was the first heavy hitter to step up to the plate in 1977. A chisel-jawed New Yorker best remembered for his comic-inspired works like Whaam! and Drowning Girl that rocked the early ‘60s, Lichtenstein approached his set of wheels with a well thought-out precision.
“I pondered on it for a long time and put as much into it as I possibly could,” he said years after his BMW had been relegated to the museum. “I wanted the lines I painted to be a depiction of the road showing the car where to go. The design also shows the countryside through which the car has traveled. One could call it an enumeration of everything a car experiences – only that this car reflects all of these things before actually having been on the road.” Already a mesmerizing thing to ogle over, Lichtenstein’s liberal use of yellow “speed lines” offset by his trademark, and retina-tricking, Ben-Day dots help make the 320i appear to be moving even when it’s standing static.
Now while Lichtenstein set the precedent for Art Car accuracy, nobody could match the paint-splattering spontaneity applied by fellow Pop Art demigod, Andy Warhol, back in 1979. A multi-media genius that regularly hung out with the rock-forging likes of Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, the controversial man from Manhattan approached his über-rare BMW M1 without any preparation whatsoever – not even a draft version was factored into the final mix. Still, kitted-out in rubber gloves and a black one-piece jumpsuit, a bespectacled and gum-chewing Warhol swaggered around his steely subject and let the moment decide the exact path of his paintbrush.
Totally freeform in every respect, the end result of this unabashed approach lead to what is perhaps one of the most astonishing liveries to ever adorn a 307km/h race machine. The automotive equivalent of soldier’s war paint, those borderless layers of colour lend the M1 a fighting air; one that defies enemy metal to come anywhere close it’s two explosive exhaust pipes. “I tried to portray speed pictorially,” Warhol later admitted in an interview before his death in 1987. “If a car is moving really quickly, all the lines and colours are blurred. I adore the car. It’s much better than a work of art.”
The moment Warhol’s M1 stormed across the finish line is when the whole Art Car project really gained impotence, with all manner and creed of artists lending their talents at decorating some of the most iconic Beemers ever made. Of course, and it’s interesting to note, not all of them were destined to shred rubber out on the racetrack but instead rather slip gracefully in and out some of the world’s finest galleries and exhibition halls. Indeed, a clutch of 20th Century maestros from Robert Rauschenberg and Cesar Manrique to David Hockney and Matazo Kayama were all chosen to make their mark on the machine. Even our homegrown Ndebele expert, Esther Mahlangu, got a chance to make over a Seven Series with her tribe’s geometric goodness.
Fast-forward to the present day and you’ll find the latest creation to come out of BMW’s Factory taps off the same hi-octane roots as Calder’s original 3.0CSL. A racecar born, the devilishly quick BMW M3 GT2 took a turn back to tradition at this year’s Le Mans 24-Hour by becoming the first Art Car in 21-years to rub doors in competition. And artist Jeff Koons, an American best known for his banal-busting stainless steel sculptures, was picked as the very person to graffiti its carbon fibre skin. Inspired by other racing cars, related graphics and the brutal beauty of explosions, Koons used a specialised 3D computer design program to simulate the application of his final scheme. Applied to the car using a lightweight vinyl wrap – traditional paint is so last Tuesday – the vibrant streaks of colour make this particular M3 look as if it mowed down every last one of those plasticine bunnies that hopped their way through Sony’s recent Bravia TV commercial.
Now while it didn’t quite match the endurance glory of its ‘70s predecessors, the amount of attention Koons’ car attracted during its brief four-hour foray around la Sarthe confirmed that a heady mixture of art and racing still has the power to leave fans breathless.