This month celebrates the 40th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s legendary BMW Art Car. In 1979, Warhol became the 4th artist to be chosen by BMW to collaborate with them, in order to blur the lines between technology and the art-world by turning a fully functioning racing car into art and then competing with it. In the Manifesto of Futurism (1909), Filippo Tommaso Marinetti praised cars as the ‘modern day sculpture,’ and no series of artworks play into this idea more than the BMW Art Car Project.
The BMW Art Car Project was originally created as the brainchild of the French auctioneer and racing driver Hervé Poulain. Wishing to combine his two greatest passions, racing and art, Poulain dreamed of competing in the Le Mans 24-Hours in a car that had been decorated by a prominent artist. Jochen Neerpasch, father of BMW Motorsport, supported Poulain with his dream and thus came about the BMW Art Car Project. In 1975, Alexander Calder was the first artist to take part in the project, decorating the BMW 3.0 CSL with angular patches of prime colours with white stripes. Later that year, Poulain himself would race the car in the Le Mans 24-Hours. Since that year, BMW have collaborated with 18 other different artists. From Jenny Holzer to Jeff Koons, the BMW Art Project has had many famous artists take their hand at using an automobile as a canvas, yet arguably none as successfully as the father of Pop Art himself, Andy Warhol.
In 1979, Warhol was chosen to take part in the project, following in the footsteps of Roy Lichtenstein (1977) and Frank Stella (1976). Warhol was tasked with transforming a BMW M1 into a work of art. Like all the previous artists, Warhol was not paid for his endeavour, just reimbursed for the cost of his materials. Unlike the three artists that had come before him, Warhol decided that the traditional method of drafting a version of the decoration on a scaled down model then supervising the assistant technicians transposing this on to the full-scale automobile was not enough. Warhol rang BMW and asked for a flight to Munich so that he could paint the car by hand. After arriving at the warehouse in Germany, it only took Warhol 24 minutes to complete the car that is today praised as one of his most iconic pieces.
A far cry from his methodical silkscreen prints, Warhol ditched the precision and uniformity of his normal style for a more hands on approach. In under half an hour, Warhol transformed the plain BMW M1 from a white car to an auto-mobile that was an explosion of colour, an artistic tribute to the excitement and speed of car racing. The car is covered in vast swathes of different colours creating a multi-coloured camouflage effect. Patches of bright red are offset with pale blues and clashing pinks. A portion of pale yellow on the hood juxtaposes with vivid greens and the messily colliding blotches of paint create a kaleidoscopic blur of colour. When asked about the car, Warhol noted that ‘when a car is going really fast all the lines and colours become a blur.’ So through his design Warhol aimed to enhance the appearance of the visual speed of the BMW with his liberal application of colour. He also scraped and marked the patches of paint with his fingers and brush to give a greater illusion of speed. His signature is inscribed with his finger on the back bumper of the car.
This method of working was very different to both any of the Art Cars that had come before and Warhol’s own work. Most famous for prints of consumerist goods such as his iconic ‘Campbell Soup,’ Warhol’s detached printing style often left little sign of his physical interaction with the canvas, playing further into the exaltation of commodification and the mass produced. Although taking a different approach stylistically, the decoration of a pre-manufactured car also fits within the framework of playing with the notion of commercial goods. Here, one can see Warhol’s personal and spontaneous approach to the decoration of the car in stark juxtaposition with the mechanical manufacturing of the product. The contrast between the factory-made and Warhol’s personal touch, echoes the sentiment of his consumerist product prints. Warhol takes a normal object, be it a can of Coca-Cola or a BMW, and makes it art.
Andy’s BMW M1, like all previous Art Cars, raced in the Le Mans 24-Hour Race. The car was driven by Hervé Poulain himself, along with the German driver Manfred Winkelhock and Marcel Mignot. The car had a 6-cylinder engine and could reach a top speed just over 300 km/h. Aside from being a priceless work of art, the car raced extremely well and finished in 6th place, finishing 2nd in its class. Although the Le Mans 24-Hour Race in 1979 is the only time this car has raced, the legacy of this legendary artwork-car hybrid still captivates the attention of the public 40 years on and this anniversary must be celebrated as a triumph of the merging of the art and technology industry.
By Ella Thomas
History of Art Undergraduate at the University of Oxford