In 1975, a design series began to explore the intersection of art and engineering. The BMW Art Car project has grown to represent a design philosophy that calls for aesthetics and utility to work in tandem.
Designers in the series have included pop gurus Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and conceptual sage Jenny Holzer. Dormant since Jeff Koons’ M3 in 2010, the past year has seen a revival of the project.
The cars that have been the focus of this renewed interest are by three artists whose works, though very different, are unified by a shared use of primary colors and strong geometric elements.
Unveiled at Art Basel this past November, the most recent official Art Car is an M6 GTLM racer amended by conceptualist John Baldessari.
Much of his work has focused on the importance assigned to objects, symbols and text, and his car is no exception: FAST is emblazoned all-caps across the driver’s door. Red and green circles make an appearance, bringing the words STOP and GO immediately to mind.
Based in Los Angeles, Baldessari looked to that city’s long-standing hot-rod culture for inspiration. Like those classics, his piece is customized but straightforward.
Back in 1991, Esther Mahlangu tricked out a 525i sedan with bright, bold patterns. The car still pops, due in part to a vibrancy that was handed down through generations.
Mahlangu is based in South Africa, and the artistic traditions of her Ndebele tribe are an important aspect of her work. Learning her craft by painting houses and murals, Mahlangu was accustomed to large workspaces and her Art Car is covered down to the hubcaps. Pastel pinks and blues work with a range of other colors, and the BMW logo seems to play off of the triangular shapes.
Mahlangu, now 81, was recently invited to work on an ‘Individual Manufaktur’ 7 Series, created for a charity auction at London’s Frieze Art Fair. Subtler than the ’91 sedan, only the interior trim panels are painted in her signature patterns. This new work shows Mahlangu referencing the personal history of her oeuvre as well as the heritage that gives life to her style.
The late, great Keith Haring developed one of the most recognizable visual vocabs ever seen. A crucial figure in bringing identity politics and activism into the art world, Haring’s stick figures and concentric mazes of line work also gave ‘respectability’ to the system-maligned realms of graffiti and street art.
Twice Haring has applied his signature thick lines to red Z1 roadsters. The works were commissioned yet ‘unofficial’ in the series. That’s fitting, given that Haring’s work straddled the commercial and the transient—the exclusive space of a gallery vs. the shared environment of a city-block wall.
BMW by no means disowned the rides, as they’re currently presenting a Haring Z1 along with four other custom-painted vehicles at the Petersen Automotive Museum in LA. The use of vehicle as canvas even pays homage to the graffiti-tagged subway cars of ‘70s NYC.
These three artists created personally informed works while using a recognizable symbol of precision engineering as their center. In doing so, they’ve reminded us that art and engineering can indeed work together, beautifully.