NCP Multi-Storey Car Park
35 Great Eastern St/Curtain Rd
London EC2A 3ER

BMW ART CAR COLLECTION
1975–2010

21 Jul —
04 Aug 2012

design: Julia — development: Developpando

The two cars that open this exhibition represent defining moments in the history of the BMW Art Car Collection. The BMW Art Car series started when passionate French racing driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain invited his friend Alexander Calder to design a car that married artistic excellence to an ‘already perfect object’, which would go on to race in Le Mans in 1975. And so the BMW Art Car was born…

In total, BMW has commissioned 17 cars, each bearing the distinctive hallmarks of the individual artist. Painted in primary colours by legendary American artist Alexander Calder, the vivid 3.0 CSL was the first commission in the series.

The white V12 LMR, emblazoned with text by Jenny Holzer in 1999, represents an ongoing commitment to an artistic collaboration between BMW and some of the most important artists of the day — Holzer having transferred her now infamous conceptual statements to the body of the car using reflective foil.

Holzer’s radical slogans were previously displayed on public advertising space, from billboards to baseball bats. ‘Protect me from what I want’ holds itself up against the rising tide of consumerism, while the statement ‘You are so complex you don’t respond to danger’ echoes Poulain’s earliest motivations and the exhilaration of Le Mans.


Across each of the three cars before you, artists Frank Stella, Matazo Kayama, and César Manrique present a dazzling array of abstract designs. Stella’s commission being the earliest in 1976, Manrique’s and Kayama’s both follow in 1990 with Kayama being the first Asian artist in the series.

Using the ancient Japanese techniques of ‘Kirigane’ (metal cutting) and ‘Arare’ (foil printing) to lay down fine pieces of silver, gold and aluminium, Kayama’s BMW 535i evokes a sensual vision of snowfall over natural forms. Kayama would later say, ‘only after I had attached the BMW emblem did I feel like my work was truly complete. I was filled with excitement like a small child’.

Manrique’s bold and striking BMW 730i echoes the vibrancy of Mediterranean living and native Spanish surrealism. ‘When I think of speed, I immediately think of butterflies and dragonflies’. Bright patterns sway before us as though the car was an exotic creature with headlamps for eyes.

Meanwhile, Stella imposes graceful swirls over a gridded 3.0 CSL ‘like a blueprint transferred onto the bodywork’. The artist superimposes abstract lines suggestive of a cutting template over enlarged graph paper, recalling the layering of cut-outs that would increasingly appear in his three-dimensional paintings.


As a recognisable art movement, Pop Art was originally launched at the ICA in the 1950s. And so it comes as a happy coincidence that we find three of the biggest American Pop Artists of the 1960s standing side by side – Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Warhol.

Over a BMW 320 Group 5, Lichtenstein has typically used enlarged comic book print, or Ben-Day dots, to create an image of the sun seen behind distant hills. In the artist’s mind, ‘the design also shows the countryside through which the car has travelled. Even the sky and the sunshine are present. One could call it an enumeration of everything a car experiences — only that this car reflects all of these things before actually having been on the road’.

Rauschenberg covers a BMW 635CSi with a collage of prints from classical paintings, saying ‘I wanted masterpieces to drive through the shades of the Everglades. I wanted to bring a museum to the roads’. As is typical of Rauschenberg’s pop aesthetic, images from high and low culture are thrown together with those from art history that include images from Jean Dominique Ingres and Florentine mannerist Agnolo Bronzino.

Warhol takes his inspiration from the speed of a BMW M1. Having spent much time on the original designs, the artist would fly in especially to Munich to paint the car. Using a crude paintbrush, even his fingers, he set out to create an image of a fast moving object. ‘I have tried to give a vivid depiction of speed. If a car is really fast, all contours and colours will become blurred’.


The Art Cars by M.J. Nelson, Ken Done and Esther Mahlangu presented here all draw on their national heritage, culture and identity as inspiration.

Nelson uses his visual language of geometric, repeated dots and fine brush strokes to relay stories and myths learnt from his father. Part of the Aboriginal Papunya Tula Artists, Nelson creates an intense dialogue between the ancient language of his ancestry and the new technology of the car, which in this case is a BMW M3. In combining the two, he is able to create a completely original artwork.

Done also takes inspiration from his Australian heritage, focusing on the parrot and parrotfish to represent colour, elegance and speed. Like many of the BMW Art Car artists, Done wanted the car to look like it was in motion, with the undulating lines giving it a tangible dynamic.

Born in South Africa, Mahlangu was both the first woman and first African to be commissioned in the Art Car series. Using a BMW 525i, she would paint a tribal pattern directly onto the surface of the car. ‘They asked me: How did you paint it? Did you plan the pattern first? And I answered: No, the design is here in my head. I can paint like this’.


Emblazoned across Sandro Chia’s BMW 3 Series are layer after layer of numerous faces. As a leading figure in the Italian ‘Transavantgarde’ movement of the 1980s, Chia recontextualises classical Italian imagery within a contemporary setting with the car serving as a mirror to passers by. ‘The challenge’, says Chia, ‘was to finish what someone else had started. I walked around the car a few times and marvelled at the form. Then the car softly spoke to me: “Please paint me”.’

David Hockney plays with the concept of viewing the car by turning it inside out, and putting the technology on the outside. Here we see a BMW 850CSi presented as though the bodywork were transparent. Having painted directly onto the car, Hockney conjures images of the Californian countryside with lush trees and bright sunshine, adding a distinctly personal touch by depicting his dog, Stanley. ‘My dogs always sit in the front.’

Reminiscent of prehistoric cave paintings, German painter A.R. Penck employs a unique vocabulary of stick men and symbolic imagery that he would later refer to as ‘Standart’ - his aim being to explain the complexities of the world in images that are comprehensible to all. Viewing the car as a magical symbol of the western world, the artist’s signature art-language appears emblazoned across a BMW Z1 as though it were ancient hieroglyphics propelled through time.


Many of the artists in the BMW Art Car series have been inspired by speed — none more so than American artist Jeff Koons and Austrian polymath Ernst Fuchs.

Fuchs’ 635CSi would adopt the name of ‘Feuerfuchs’, after the title ‘fire fox on a hare hunt’, as it became engulfed in the graphic equivalent of shooting flames. Serving as a projection screen for the artist’s fantasies and desires, Fuchs is able to tell a story with many strands, such as the excitement of speed, the fear of surprises embodied in a leaping hare, and the thrill of escaping a burning car. ‘The longing to transcend time and space, all this inspired me while I painted the BMW Coupé.’

Koons represents speed with a truly dazzling graphic complexity. His composition of multi-coloured lights skinning over the surface of the car is so dynamic that it appears as though his M3 GT2 is permanently racing under the bright canopy of Las Vegas. As Koons would say on completion, ‘The cooperation with BMW during this project has been one of the greatest experiences of my life’. This is quite a recommendation coming from one of the world’s most famous living artists.