Rolling Sculpture: on the Automobile’s Aesthetics | Magazine



“Museum to Open First Exhibition Anywhere of Automobiles Selected for Design,” trumpeted a Museum of Modern Art press release in 1951.[1] In the fall of that year, MoMA presented 8 Automobiles, a show of European and American cars selected by the curator Arthur Drexler for “their excellence as works of art.” The designation bewildered the public and journalists alike: “Yer nuts! Automobiles—that screwy art they call modern? You mean I got a hunk of art in my garage?” queried a “Joe Doakes” in one review. “Well, that’s right, brother, Automobiles are art,” came the response. “And so are your electric toaster and your washing machine and a great many other things you use every day without thinking . . . It’s the art of OUR age, and it’s a good thing that there are some institutions waking up to the fact.”[2] The New York Times critic Aline Louchheim picked up the story in the form of conversation between a “Man from Mars” (M. from M.) and a testy, condescending “Museum Official” (Mus. Off.) trying to explain the automobiles’ presence:

Mus. Off.: Good Heavens, don’t you know automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture?
M. from M.: Good Earth, they are?
Mus. Off.: They have interior spaces corresponding to an outer form, like buildings. [. . .]
M. from M.: [. . .] I thought the most important points about an automobile were the excellence of its motor, its safety factors and the comfort it provides its passengers.
Mus. Off. (impatiently): Of course, certainly. But that is not our problem. This is an exhibition concerned with the aesthetics of motor car design.
M. from M. (eagerly): You mean, with chromium and that grille on the front which Europeans call “the dollar grin”?
Mus. Off. (shuddering): No, no, certainly not. That is just what we don’t mean. [. . .]
M. from M.: [. . .] Wonder how the public will take to this exhibition. People are touchy about cars. [3]

Car design certainly was, and still is, an emotive topic about which many people hold forthright views based on personal experience. But this accessible and ubiquitous industrial product raised larger questions about what qualified as modern art. In this regard, 8 Automobiles was in keeping with exhibitions of everyday objects and industrial design held at MoMA from the 1930s which prepared the way for the appearance of the automobile as art.

Willys-Overland Motors, Inc., Toledo, Ohio. Jeep M-38A1 Utility Truck. Designed 1952 (this example 1953)

8 Automobiles was in effect a “car-body show”[4] that put issues of functionality, safety, and technical performance to one side. Two design approaches were highlighted—the envelope (epitomized by the sporty Cisitalia 202) and the box on wheels (exemplified by the Willys-Overland Jeep). Both cars would in due course be acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. Undoubtedly the curatorial choices raised some hackles, and the Museum’s apparent European bias in the area of cars has been a topic of lively debate ever since. Philip Johnson described the Cisitalia’s body as being slipped over the chassis like a “dust jacket over a book”—clearly a car for the intelligentsia—whereas the Jeep, which combined the “appeal of an intelligent dog and perfect gadget,” came from lower down the evolutionary chain.[5]

Save for the Jeep, all of MoMA’s cars were designed and manufactured in Europe. Yet arguably it was in the US that the automobile was embraced most fully. “Not a phase of American life, not even her humor, has been untouched by the automobile,” wrote an American professor of political science, in 1924. “The home, the school, the church; recreation, production, distribution; agriculture, advertising, plant location; highway safety, the courts; city planning, public expenditures, international problems—all have felt the driving power of the automobile.”[6] European visitors were stunned by the spectacle of Henry Ford’s assembly-line production in Detroit and the sheer volume of traffic in American cities. “The whole population drives, races, honks through the cities, over the country roads, for business, for pleasure, for sport, to the cinema, for tête-à-têtes,” observed one German visitor in 1926.[7] In the late twentieth century, it was to the chrome-laden automobiles pouring out of Detroit that pioneers of British Pop art—such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi—turned for inspiration. Cars—and this push-pull relationship between the US and Europe—went to the heart of larger debates around modernism, consumerism, and popular culture, and played a pivotal role in MoMA’s articulation of concepts of “good” design at mid-century.

Vehicles are costly to store, conserve, and display, and it was never the Museum’s intention to form a comprehensive collection. The collection of car-related objects, however, is substantial, which should come as no surprise given the transformative impact of the automobile—for better and for worse—and its position as an icon of modernity throughout the twentieth century. Over the years the Department of Architecture and Design has acquired car accessories and components; posters; street signage and road maps; and architectural models and drawings that relate to car-centric structures—all offering a lens through which to better understand how the automobile has reshaped our conceptions of space and the built environment. Aline Louchheim noted in her review of Ten Automobiles that “the implications of the automobile . . . as symbol of speed and motion and as a psychological symbol in the machine-world” had made themselves felt: “More than any other single thing the automobile has changed our common view of the world, accustoming us to ‘multiple perspectives,’ to deformations of form, to kinetic images, to the fragment. In short, to the vision which has touched all modern art.”[8] Artworks are to be found in every corner of the Museum that reflect, directly or indirectly, on the hold of the automobile over our imaginary and terrestrial lives. As a physical extension of the human body, a sublimated manifestation of our inner emotions, or an expression of social identities inflected by race, class, and gender, the motorcar presents rich territories for artists to explore.

Eduardo Paolozzi. Untitled from Moonstrips Empire News. 1967

Eduardo Paolozzi. Untitled from Moonstrips Empire News. 1967

Pablo Picasso. Baboon and Young. October 1951 (cast 1955)

Pablo Picasso. Baboon and Young. October 1951 (cast 1955)

Created in 1951, the year of the 8 Automobiles exhibition, Pablo Picasso’s Baboon and Young alludes to the way cars have suffused the human psyche. Four-year-old Claude Picasso did not have long to play with the toy cars given to him by the art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler before his father appropriated them. The result was an assemblage in which two of these miniature automobiles were sandwiched undersides together to form a baboon’s head—her eyeballs framed by a windscreen, and her mouth and lips created out of “dollar grin” radiators. Picasso adapted another car part, a leaf spring terminating in a taut spiral, to form the animal’s spine and long tail. These elements, embedded in the baboon-mother’s makeup, remain recognizable in the final cast form of the sculpture. She has the totemic presence of some primeval yet modern deity, fusing animal, human, and machine parts. By implication, the essence of automobiles will be transmitted to the human child clinging to her breast.

Aldous Huxley speculated on the ramifications of car idolatry in his futuristic novel Brave New World (1932), in which Henry Ford is revered as the creator of a “World State” built on the principles of his assembly line. Citizens, like Ford cars, are mass-produced, homogenous, and disposable—the regimented, mind-numbing drudgery of the assembly line has turned them into unthinking machines. The dystopian vision of Automania 2000—the 1963 animated film by the British studio Halas and Batchelor from which this project takes its name—suggests that technological innovation is a double-edged sword: if mass production initially brought about undreamt-of standards of living, it also leads to gridlocked immobility and, ultimately, the extinction of civilization.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, car-themed toys and entertainment—ranging from Hans Brockage and Erwin Andra’s “rocking car” (1950) to the video game franchise Grand Theft Auto—have been consistently popular across age groups. Death-defying car chases in books and film offer further vicarious experiences of driving. One of the most enduring contributions to this canon is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), in which the character Mr. Toad is placed on house arrest by concerned friends following a destructive bender behind the wheel. Stubbornly resistant to being cured of his addiction, he reenacts his wild rides: “When his violent paroxysms possessed him he would arrange bedroom chairs in rude resemblance of a motor-car and would crouch on the foremost of them, bent forward and staring fixedly ahead, making uncouth and ghastly noises, till the climax was reached, when, turning a complete somersault, he would lie prostrate amidst the ruins of the chairs.”[9]

James Van Der Zee. Couple, Harlem. 1932

James Van Der Zee. Couple, Harlem. 1932

Cars have long functioned as a strategic tool of impression management among family, friends, and fellow citizens. To get on in 1920s America required owning an up-to-date and well-maintained automobile. According to Ise Gropius, “these respectable mechanized pets” were a kind of “calling card” in New York: “One is ‘attired’ in a Cadillac, a Buick, a Ford! . . . A solid, well-situated salesman doesn’t drive a Rolls Royce because that would be taken as snobbery, and an advanced individual no longer shows himself in a Ford! The auto has assumed the prestige functions that formerly belonged to the house.”[10] This was certainly the case for a well-to-do couple photographed in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in 1932, then in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. The photographer, James Van Der Zee, was a leading figure of this movement. Swathed in his-and-hers raccoon coats, the couple exude majesty, but the real star of the portrait is the gleaming Cadillac V-16—a top-of-the-range luxury model styled by Harley Earl—with which they are posed. About four thousand of these cars were made in the 1930s, each with a customized chassis. For the pair in Van Der Zee’s photograph, this display of status would have had an added layer of meaning during a time when Black Americans faced discrimination in so many other areas of cultural expression.

Ketaki Sheth. Shilpa and Sheetal in their car, Harrow, Middlesex. 1995

Ketaki Sheth. Shilpa and Sheetal in their car, Harrow, Middlesex. 1995

A Mercedes in the portrait of twins Shilpa and Sheetal Patel, taken six decades later by Ketaki Sheth in the London borough of Harrow, similarly reflects the particular import that car ownership as a means of upward social mobility has in marginalized communities. Empowered by the possession of their own mobile space, the sisters—whose family had built up a successful auto parts business—are pictured outside the suburban home of their grandmother, who was among tens of thousands of Asians expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin in 1972.

Edgar Ainsworth. Everywhere You Go You Can be Sure of Shell Gordale Scar - The Craven Fault, Yorks. 1934

Edgar Ainsworth. Everywhere You Go You Can be Sure of Shell Gordale Scar – The Craven Fault, Yorks. 1934

In addition to making suburban living possible, cars opened up the countryside to mass leisure. “Everywhere You Go You Can Be Sure of Shell” was a 1930s advertising campaign through which Shell targeted an expanding group of middle-class British motorists. The damage wrought on natural landscapes by the construction of roads and filling stations and by invasive oil extraction was far from universally welcome. By presenting visions of the British countryside removed from disfiguring industry, Shell sought to divert attention from its association with environmental harm. Shell’s use of artists to soften its public image was a form of artwashing, a well-established branding strategy practiced by polluting mobilities—exposed more recently by the climate-activist group Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing protests against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The aesthetics of infrastructure was the subject of Roads (1961), a MoMA circulating exhibition of aerial photographs. Viewed from above, the visually complex traffic circles, clover leaf intersections, and multilevel interchanges of urban traffic arteries read as abstract works of art. The ground-level vision from inside a car offers a kind of experience more akin to the insistent temporal flow of music and cinema. The electronic band Kraftwerk experimented with the hypnotic rhythms of driving along West German motorways in their signature album Autobahn (1974). While Autobahn can be seen, in part, as a celebration of West German engineering, the burned-out Trabant in Eberhard Grames’s photo Boy in a Wrecked Car, Dresden (1989) might be read as symbolic of the former East Germany and of the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in general.

From plaything of the rich to utilitarian necessity of modern life to artistic muse, the car has triggered conflicting responses since its first appearance in the 1890s. Some have viewed the car as the ultimate expression of technological progress, capable of bringing about positive societal change, while others have seen it as the enemy of humanistic values, leading only to destruction. Current efforts to render the combustion engine redundant suggest we have reached a critical moment in this narrative. New directions will require clear-eyed reflection on why cars have been, and continue to be, so important to us. For all their ubiquity and attendant problems, these everyday objects still have the power to enthrall as works of art—if only as museum pieces.

Kraftwerk. Autobahn. 1974

Kraftwerk. Autobahn. 1974

Automania, organized by Juliet Kinchin, former Curator, Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, and Andrew Gardner, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, is on view at MoMA through January 2, 2022.


[1] The Museum of Modern Art, New York, press release no. 510823-46, August 23, 1951.
[2] Press clipping, “Modern Art in Your Garage,” September 6, 1951, MoMA Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records (MoMA Exhs.).
[3] Aline B. Louchheim, “Automobiles as Art,” The New York Times, September 2, 1951.
[4] John Wheelock Freeman, “What Is Good Design?,” Auto Sport Review, July 1952, 50.
[5] Philip Johnson, quoted in Bert Pierce, “Auto as Art Work Is Museum Exhibit,” The New York Times, August 29, 1951.
[6] Clyde L. King, foreword to Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 116, no. 1 (November 1924): vii.
[7] Paul Rohrbach, quoted in Walter Gropius Amerikareise 1928, ed. Gerda Breuer and Annemarie Jaeggi (Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, 2008).
[8] Louchheim, “The Automobile in Modern Art,” The New York Times, September 20, 1953.
[9] Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: Methuen & Co., 1908), 45.
[10] Ise Gropius, “Autofahren in New York” (unpublished manuscript, 1929), Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.


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