Automania at MoMA balances celebration and criticism of cars

For many Americans, cars have become a lifeline and refuge during the pandemic, even as the newly sparkling air above the locked cities highlighted their darker side. Introspection on commuting and climate change was counterbalanced by the hope that cars could clean up their act with electricity and allow new generations to fall under the spell of their beauty and ingenuity.

This unfailing tension is at the heart of Automania, an exhibition inaugurated at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan on Sunday, July 4, a public holiday that now symbolizes motorized freedom and parade convertibles. With this in mind, the public could be invited to visit MoMA via public transport; but in this case, pack the kids in the SUV and go.

As this expertly curated show reveals, this yin-yang of cars dates back to the early years of the industry and to those of MoMA itself.

Automania takes its name and inspiration from a 1963 Oscar nominated animated short, “Automania 2000”. This piece is the work of John Halas and Joy Batchelor, the UK husband and wife team best known for a 1954 version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. Their short imagines a future of scientific wonders, like unlimited ‘electrohydromagnetic’ energy, mouth-watering petroleum-based factory foods, and a craze for ever-bigger and faster rides that hatch the ’40-foot supercar’ . (The SUV was apparently beyond the most fertile imagination.)

Problems ensue: New York and other cities are crammed with skyscrapers with piles of cars. Their “car dwellers” seem happy enough, putting up “Home Sweet Home” signs, but they’ve been stuck inside for years, in a stark parallel of a pandemic.

Here, in 2021, at least cross-traffic is ramping up, and the world continues to grapple with the fallout from personal transportation.

“It looks like we’ve come to another critical turning point in our relationship with the automobile,” said Juliet Kinchin, who curated the MoMA exhibit with contributions from Paul Galloway and Andrew Gardner.

Yet the exhibition, drawn almost exclusively from the museum’s own collection, is never dogmatic, walking a white line between criticism and celebration.

“We hope this will deepen and spark further debate, but also a joyful appreciation of automotive innovation, technology and social transformation,” Ms. Kinchin said.

Paintings, sculptures, photographs, posters, films, models, road signs and automotive components show how the automobile has transformed all aspects of our culture, landscapes and cities – and fueled the imaginations of artists.

The authoritative table bookends three centuries, including the 1898 Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph “The car driver. “It represents the artist’s doctor cousin, dressed in a fur coat, gloves and protective glasses, speeding past a Parisian woman and her barking dog, oblivious to the smoke and dust in her wake.

Artists – as varied as Italian Dadaists and Futurists to automotive-obsessed designers like Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright – immediately grasped the power and possibilities of the automobile. Futurist Giacomo Balla has produced over 100 studies of cars, including the kaleidoscopic and coruscative beauty of “High Speed ​​Automobile” from 1912. In 1915, the exhibition catalog indicates, the avant-garde painter Francis Picabia affirmed that “the genius of the modern world is machinery, and that through machinery, art must find a most expressive expression. lively ”. Le Corbusier compared an elegant Delage Grand Sport to the Greek Parthenon, seeing both as “a reflection of the needs and spirit of their respective ages”.

Advertising got started very early on, including by prominent graphic designers, such as Lucian Bernhard’s 1914 poster of a light the Bosch candle. Then as now, artists and companies hinted at the blatant links between conduct and personal power and sex. An advert from 1907 by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela for a Swedish automaker shows his eccentric CEO, known as the “flying baron”, crossing a starry sky, kidnapping a stylized naked girl named Kyllikki. In this revisited Finnish epic, the daredevil hero’s wooden sleigh is replaced by a phallic car, in the romantic national Nordic style influenced by Art Nouveau.

Exhibition display board size names include Edouard Ruscha, Andy warhol, Robert frank, Charles sheeler and Margaret Bourke-Blanc. 1940 Edward Hopper “Gas” painting shifts her artist’s hollowed-out view of the American isolation of her familiar city diner to a gas station in the middle of nowhere American. A lone attendant, in a waistcoat and tie, stands guard at the pumps, waiting for a car that may never come.

Automania also highlights 10 examples of revolutionary automotive design, including a 1963 Jaguar E-Type stretched as a stogie. Roadster; a 1990 Ferrari Formula 1 driver; and an adorable 1963 Airstream Bambi Trailer. The Aluminum Skin Bambi – named by company founder Wally Byam, on his 14,000 mile caravan across Africa in 1960, for a small deer known as “O’Mbambi” in a Bantu dialect – has become a staple of American highways, reliably towed by a family break.

MoMA’s most recent tire acquisition is a Citroën DS saloon. This is a late 1973 example of the classic created by Flaminio Bertoni of Italy and aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre. The DS remains one of the most acclaimed fetish designs of the 20th century, despite its iconoclastic proportions. The name is a French play about “Deesse”, the pronunciation of her word for “Déesse”.

In 1955, when the DS was shattered, French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes drew another artistic line in the sand. He declared the DS “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 which appropriates it. like a purely magical object. object.”

For Barthes, Le Corbusier and others who have compared cars to religious temples and other idealized forms – sometimes with what a mechanic might describe as a tendency to overheat – it is telling that they are so often men. Still, the DS was magical in other ways: an Apple ahead of its time, with swivel headlights, self-leveling suspension, and new electronics.

And the exhibition highlights the often overlooked contributions of women. A 1958 General Motors film promotes his “Design ladiesThe women of Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute recruited by Harley Earl, the towering figure of GM who essentially gave birth to modern automotive styling, as well as the drift and the Corvette. Even then, the patronizing name of “Bridesmaids” angered women, whose innovations included child-resistant doors, retractable seat belts, and lighted vanity mirrors.

Even Picasso had a surprising blow to the automobile, in the bronze of 1951 ”Baboon and young. Ms. Kinchin explained that Picasso snatched two small cars from his son, sandwiching them to create the baboon’s mouth from two radiators, his eyes framed by a windshield, a leaf spring forming his spine, and The human-machine (and animal) hybrid – an enduring fascination from Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ to Kraftwerk’s musical robots – is essentially passed down to the baby baboon hanging within its mother. ‘Kraftwerk album for 1974 “Highway”Is also here in lithograph form.)

“For me, there is so much about the way cars entered our heads,” Ms. Kinchin said. “Physically and psychologically, they become an extension of ourselves on many levels. “

As curators explored MoMA’s vast collections, they realized that even this generous exhibition could only leave room for a small fraction of the automotive-related works.

“We were amazed and frustrated at how little we could actually show,” Ms. Kinchin said. “The subject is so rich.

MoMA has always been delighted with provocative questions about what can be called modern art. Before becoming the founding director of MoMA, Alfred H. Barr Jr. took his modern art students to Wellesley to see the National Automobile Show in New York in 1928. The work of architectural curator Philip JohnsonMachine art”Shows in 1934 engine pistons, ball bearings and a dashboard clock among his works.

In 1951, MoMA trumpeted its show known as 8 cars with a press release: “The museum will open the first exhibition anywhere on automobiles selected for design.” The exhibition was so popular that it was taken over two years later as Ten automobiles. An addition was a Studebaker Commander Starliner Coupe, the pillarless coupe once flickered to the credit of industrial design giant Raymond Loewy, but largely the work of its employee Robert Bourke.

One curator, Arthur Drexler, with polemical intent – today we would call him “lagging behind” – described the first 8 automobiles as a “hollow and rolling sculpture”.

The catalog notes that “the designation baffled the public and journalists,” including a 1951 New York Times reviewer who envisioned a MoMA tour for a man from Mars who had just arrived, wondering what the hell the hell were doing cars in a museum.

“I wonder how the public will appreciate this exhibition. People are sensitive to cars ”, prophetic alien decides.

People, especially New Yorkers, remain susceptible. But only the most controversial could argue that automobiles did not deserve artistic or design consideration.

“You don’t have to be a driver or own a car to have powerful memories or associations about the cars in your life,” Ms. Kinchin said. “Everyone has a car story. Everyone at some level can relate to the car.

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