Art Cars: A Conversation with BMW’s Thomas Girst

By Steve Kroeter August 19, 2014

BMW’s Head of Cultural Engagement, Thomas Girst, talks about the company’s almost 40-year tradition of producing unique cars designed by artists—now collected into a book. BMW Art Cars, edited by Girst and published by Hatje Cantz, showcases the 17 artists invited to re-envision the look of some of the world’s most famous racecars.

Alexander Calder, BMW 33.0 CSL, 1975. Photo: Michel Zumbrunn, © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars

Designers & Books: Where did the idea for the Art Cars program originate?
Thomas Girst: Literally on the racetrack. In the 1970s, Hervé Poulain, as passionate about racing as he was about contemporary art, got in touch with Jochen Neerpasch, director of BMW Motorsport. Poulain was eager to race in BMW’S team during the 24 hours of Le Mans and offered the possibility of an artist painting his racecar. Both were crazy enough to move ahead—together with Alexander Calder who created the first BMW Art Car in 1975, shortly before his death. This was pretty much the same BMW 3.0 CSL that Stella would then turn into an Art Car the year after. Calder’s car was supposed to be a one-off, but from the moment it was positioned on the track, this rolling sculpture became the darling of the crowd who cheered it on all the way to the finish line.

The Book

BMW Art Cars Thomas Girst
Carl Magnusson
Phil Patton

D&B: What is the motivation for an artist whose work is collected in the world’s most prestigious museums to accept an invitation to participate in the BMW Art Cars program?
TG: It differs every time. It is certainly not the honorarium, as there is none. Jeff Koons said he would be happy to enter the pantheon of artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein who had already tried their hands at an Art Car. Others are eager to position their art outside of the usual gallery and museum world. Olafur Eliasson was interested in engineering and the whole process of how a car is created. Stella himself is a passionate racecar driver—and what better way for Calder to test his ideas for “mobiles” than to paint a racecar?

D&B: Many of the cars have competed in sanctioned races. How would you say their visual presence compares to their “non-art” competitors? Have the cars had any impact on the aesthetics of racecars?
TG: After the first racecars, BMW as a brand positioned itself internationally, with great success. It was then that the Art Car series expanded participation to other regions of the world, with regular-model cars instead of racecars. The series benefited greatly: the car by Esther Mahlangu, a female artist whose work is deeply rooted in the imagery of the Ndbele tribe, is an amazing contribution. So is the one Michael Jagamara Nelson, an Australian aboriginal artist—or Matazo Kayama. With Holzer, Eliasson, and Koons, the series came full circle, paying tribute to its roots by using racecars again. When we remember that the BMW Group is not a cultural institution, over the period of 40 years the artists chosen hold up pretty well!

Esther Mahlangu, BMW 5251, 1991. Photo: © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars

D&B: Are the artists given any directions or constraints regarding what they can and can’t do with the cars?
TG: As with all of our cultural engagement, which involves hundreds of initiatives around the world, we honor complete artistic freedom as well as the curatorial integrity of the institutions we work with. As for the Art Car artists, they can do whatever it is they want to do. Having said that, there are constraints, of course, which also act as an incentive: for example, since the car will race, as the car´s race driver would want to win, so the artist must not design anything that adds to the weight of the automobile or interferes with its aerodynamics.

Jeff Koons, BMW M3 GT2, 2010. The M3 enters the 24 Hours of Le Mans, June 2010. The car’s starting number is 79—a tribute to Andy Warhol’s Art Car from 1979. Photo: © BMW AG. From BMW Art Cars

D&B: Are there any telling or curious differences in how the artists have approached the project?
TG: Warhol and Koons were interested in speed, the power under the hood, the blending of colors while the car is racing on the track. Michael Jagamara Nelson and Esther Mahlangu incorporate tribal myths and patterns. Lichtenstein shows everything the car would see: rolling hills, sunset and sunrise—as an homage to the 24-hour Le Mans race—clouds, and even the street the car drives on. Hockney, in his abstracted colorful style, shows everything inside out: the engine, the dachshund on the backseat. Rauschenberg does the same: driver and co-driver are shown as portraits of a young man by Bronzino and an odalisque by Ingres—it’s the most postmodern car we have in the series. There are things to discover with every car and especially when comparing them to one another. Eliasson’s car is the car to end the series. Building on the chassis of the H2R prototype—a racecar that ran solely on hydrogen— he created stainless steel encasements from which hundreds of frozen icicles take shape within a walk-in freezer. The car was based in part on many discussions with our engineers and designers that went on for years. This was an amazing experience, with a great artist. 

Robert Rauschenberg, BMW 635CSI, 1986. The artist applying printed plastic to the car, Florida, 1986. Photo: © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars.

Olafur Eliasson, Your Mobile Expectations: BMW H2R Project, 2007. On Display at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, 2007. Photo: © Studio Olafur Eliasson/BMW Group. From BMW Art Cars

D&B: Which of the cars do you think is most easily connected with the style for which the artist is known?
TG: Lichtenstein. His Benday dots are easily recognizable. And Penck, with his mythical stick figures.

A. R. Penck, BMW Z1, 1991. Photo: Werner Deisenroth, © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars

D&B: And the least connected?
TG: Surprisingly, Andy Warhol of Factory fame. Eager to get rid of the “hand” with his silk-screening process, when he was when confronted with an object of industrial design—our iconic 1979 BMW M1—he actually painted it with his own hands, rotating the brush from time to time, scratching into the paint, using his fingers to apply paint as well. He finally signed the car with his fingers, too.

Andy Warhol, BMW M1 Group 4, 1979. Photo: Andrew Ritter and Mike Burroughs, Stance Works Photography ©BMW AG

D&B: It’s probably unfair to ask which of the 17 cars is your favorite. But do you have three or four favorite images from the book?
TG: If you’re a dad of two or more kids, you do not have a favorite. As for the pictures, I think it is striking to see the Warhol car parked in the Bronx or the Calder racing, its colors blending with the clothes of the crowd and the advertisements next to the racetrack. The Warhol car on a gondola in Venice is pretty amazing—or speeding away in front of the Martini sign. Crazy times! Koons in front of the Eiffel Tower, in front of the Tower Bridge, on a cliff in Norway—nine more pictures and we’d have the greatest calendar! Also, Mahlangu in the South African savanna, the natural habitat for the car.

Alexander Calder’s BMW 3.0 CSI at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1975. Photo: © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars

Andy Warhol’s BMW M1 being shipped to the exhibition “Pop Art: Evoluzione di una generazione,” Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1980. Photo: © BMW Group Archive. From BMW Art Cars

Jeff Koons’s BMW M3 on the famous Preikestolen cliffs above a Norwegian fjord, near Stavanger, 2012. Photo: © Myrestrand. From BMW Art Cars

D&B: How did the design of the cover come about?
TG: We were eager not to do the usual. I found it more interesting for there to be nothing predictable: no logo, no car. So we decided on a close-up. Jeff’s car seems to embody all the cars, especially with the wide range of colors he chose. On a visit he agreed to choose the detail, which we had to reshoot when the car was exhibited in Brussels. Jeff approved the colors and was involved in every detail. The book comes in a slipcase on which the title is embossed. We thought the slipcase should be like a garage in which the book about our Art Cars is parked.

Cover and slipcase, designed by Jeff Koons, for BMW Art Cars, edited by Thomas Girst, 2014 (U.S., Hatje Cantz)

D&B: Where do the art cars “live”? And what is their life like day in and day out? Are they all kept together? How often are they exhibited?
TG: The home of the BMW Art Cars is the BMW Museum in Munich. At least one of the cars is always on display. Many of the Art Cars travel the globe and are constantly exhibited all over the world. They hibernate in storage outside of Munich if need be, cuddling up with other classic automobiles of the MINI, BMW, and Rolls-Royce brands.

D&B: Is there an Art Cars archive? If so, what’s in it, other than the cars?
TG: A company is not a museum so we are not as good at archiving things, especially when it come to things that do not relate as much to our core business as a premium car manufacturer. That said, it is amazing to see, what great abundance of material (footage, documents, original correspondence), our colleagues from BMW Classic were eager to save through the decades. What we also have are the maquettes—the small car models the artists were working on to understand how their designs and vision would translate onto the body of the automobile. Of course, they are priceless now and we display them from time to time.

D&B: Do the artists get a car for participating?
TG: The most important thing to know is that the artists do not get paid. Of course, we cover all production costs, the world premiere, the racing events, the global exhibitions. Some artists did get cars—Hockney asked for the 850CSI, the same model he painted. Jeff Koons asked for two cars, the proceeds of which he donated to his foundation.

David Hockney, BMW 850CSI, 1995. Photo: Andrew Ritter and Mike Burroughs, Stance Works Photography ©BMW AG

D&B: Who will be doing the next art car?
TG: We will know very soon, I promise. An international panel of museum directors convened recently to determine the next BMW Art Car artist. Will the car race? The announcement will be made in due course! In any case, the 40-year anniversary of the BMW Art Cars is coming up in 2015—this book commemorates that landmark.

View Thomas Girst’s Profile

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