Leads to beauty, leads to distraction
The other motor vehicles parked in the garden are also part of the living room. This is a 1953 Army Jeep, a 1968 Fiat 500f (a contender for the cutest car ever built), a 1973 Citroën DS 23 (if it had less guard on the ground, it could serve as a street sweeper) and a 2002 Smart Car. Although the vehicles leave the garden on October 1, “Automania” continues until January 2.
There are a lot of other things in the show besides the cars. One of the points raised by “Automania” is the magnitude and diversity of the impact of the automobile. Among the approximately 90 objects, there is a sculpture by Picasso which uses two miniature cars as components; a lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec entitled “L’Automobiliste”; road signs (did you know that those in Britain use a bespoke font called Transport?); photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Frank; car seat upholstery samples designed by Anni Albers; a 1965 Kenneth Anger short with the very vroom-vroom title “Kustom Kar Kommandos”.
The relationship between society (automobile culture) and the art world (culture culture) has traveled both ways. Delete the text from a 1934 Shell Oil advertising poster that’s in the show, and you’d swear it was a Leger print.
The obvious point for putting these cars in the sculpture garden – speaking of traveling both ways – is equivalence. Viewed simply as three-dimensional forms, vehicles are a functional version of sculpture. Put aside all the automobile associations: power, independence, mobility (also noise, smoke, traffic jams). Like objects, these machines are very aesthetic.
French cultural critic Roland Barthes saw the issue of equivalence in a similar, but even more elated, way. He wrote in 1955 that the automobile is “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 use by a whole population. who appropriates it. like a purely magical object.
Perhaps Barthes was about to see the automobile in architectural terms, albeit more literally than he thought. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius all dabbled in designing an automobile. It’s logic. The Gothic cathedral was medieval spirituality made in stone. The automobile is modernity on four wheels.
Barthes’ term “purely magical object” applies as a description to two vehicles in “Automania” exhibited inside the museum. A 1963 blue Jaguar E-Type roadster, known in North America as the XK-E, has such a sleek elegance you can imagine Brancusi’s ghost saying, “Now this is the car for me. Conversely, when Frank Sinatra saw the model for the first time, he reportedly said, “I want this car, and I want it now.
Much more welcoming, but no less appealing, the Airstream Bambi Travel Trailer, also from 1963. It’s quite adorable, a word rarely, if ever, spoken within the walls of MoMA. Yet which word better describes the combined effect of the glow of its unpainted aluminum exterior? the pleasant curve of its streamlined shape; and especially the wonderful spatial economy of its interior? “Snug” can apply, but certainly not “cramped”.
Adorable would never be used to describe the 1990 Formula 1 Ferrari driver also in the show. It’s thunder made in carbon fiber. The machine – and that’s what it is, okay, no ifs, no buts, a machine – looks so powerful and explosive. With rear tires wider than an adult male’s forearm, it’s scary.
“Automania” doesn’t shy away from the dark aspects of its subject matter. The exhibition follows a more or less chronological route, and the more the history of the automobile advances, the more it becomes destructive. This is where the conflictuality of the series comes in.
The title of the last section makes this clear. It’s called “Carmageddon”. Here, the damage caused by the automobile is faced head-on, looking at the immediate ills of traffic, pollution and energy extraction – and the much greater threat of climate change. “Automania” is both a celebration and an uplifting story. Even though these beautiful machines in the garden enhance its appearance, they threaten its existence.
At the Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St. New York, until January 2. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at [email protected]