Many corporations hang masterpieces by the likes of Lichtenstein , Rauschenburg, or Warhol on the walls of their headquarters, but only BMW has a collection of paintings that could set a lap record at Le Mans. Starting in 1975, BMW began commissioning leading international artists to create a series of Art Cars, which now number 17 vehicles. The series began as the brainchild of French racing driver and art collector Hervé Poulain, who had both access to the artists and the ear of executives in Munich.
The first car in the series was decorated after a maquette painted by Alexander Calder (above), and raced by Poulain at the 1975 Le Mans 24 Hours. Racing cars by Frank Stella and Roy Lichtenstein followed, but it wasn’t until Andy Warhol’s BMW M1 race car in 1979 that the artist himself painted directly on the surface of the car. These first 4 cars were special in that they were true racing cars that were actually campaigned on the track.
After the Warhol M1, the majority of the Art Cars were painted on production vehicles for display purposes. The choice of artists represent in interesting cross section of international talent, from South Africa’s Esther Mahlangu to Australia’s Michael Nelson Jagamarra, both of whom applied their respective indigenous painting techniques to the sheet metal of their cars.
In 1999, The Art Car series returned to the race track at La Sarthe with the V-12 LMR prototype car with Jenny Holzer livery, though the Art Car ran only in practice. A different V-12 LMR won the race, which was BMW’s first and only outright Le Mans victory. Holzer’s car is minimal word art as might be expected, but genuinely thought provoking in the context of the advertising that usually emblazoned across today’s racing cars.
After an 8 year gap, BMW commissioned Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to create an art car. Eliasson has the distinction of creating the only Art Car that cannot be driven, as he encased the car’s bare chassis in a network of steel bars, which was then coated in ice (using about 530 gallons of water in the process!). After Eliasson, artist Robin Rhode added to the Art Car lore by creating a series of large scale paintings using a BMW Z4 as his brush. The result is interesting, as the car itself is not officially the work of art, but rather the means by which the art was created.
The most recent installment in this increasingly esoteric series was a refreshing return to the original formula started by Poulain: A proper race car, created for Le Mans in 2010, and fittingly decorated by one of the biggest names in contemporary art – Jeff Koons. The car ran well, but failed to finish the race, also echoing Poulain’s DNF in 1975. Who knows, perhaps the next Art Car will be as successful on the track as it is in a gallery setting. You may see the entire range of BMW Art Cars here.
Words by: Bradley Price, a New York-based designer, car nut, racing history buff. He founded the Autodromo brand in 2011, and divides his spare time between his stable of vintage Italian cars and running the car blog Automobiliac.