"Automania" at MoMA: How our love of cars fueled art

·4 min read

This summer the meaning of "arriving in style" rose to new heights, as these cars were lifted to their parking places, for a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A Porsche 911 coupe descends into the garden of the Museum of Modern Art.  / Credit: CBS News
A Porsche 911 coupe descends into the garden of the Museum of Modern Art. / Credit: CBS News

The exhibit, "Automania," features nine vehicles, from the unique 1946 Cisitalia 202 GT, to more familiar cars like the Volkswagen Beetle, or the Airstream Land Yacht.

Correspondent Serena Altschul said, "A car can be so many things to different people, you know – memories, nostalgia."

"It's really remarkable when you think about the ways that cars can bring different kinds of audiences into a place like MoMA," said Andrew Gardner, one of the show's curators. "That's a really good feeling."

Curator Andrew Gardner and correspondent Serena Altschul examine a Cisitalia 202 GT at
Curator Andrew Gardner and correspondent Serena Altschul examine a Cisitalia 202 GT at

The show features cars as art, and also art inspired by cars, like a painted hood by Judy Chicago.

Gardner said, "I think she was really fascinated with the fact that cars were stereotypically male objects. But embedded in their form and a shape and a kind of sumptuous details of the cars was this very feminized approach to car design and car culture."

Judy Chicago's
Judy Chicago's

Or a sketch by Frank Lloyd Wright, who was, Gardner said, "obsessed with cars. ... He was looking to the car to shape the 20th century. And he was very prescient in his thinking."

This isn't MOMA's first exhibit revolving around cars. The first was in 1951. Speed up to 2021, and the museum has taken a different direction. This show takes its name after an Oscar-nominated animated film from 1963 that questions our dependence on cars.

Gardner said, "You actually see these cars piling, piling, piling up. And you really are, like, does our entire life have to be organized around this one thing?' And it brings up really important questions that I think we really wanted to get at in the exhibition."

"So, the show is not just a celebration, but it's also a critique?" asked Altschul.

"Absolutely."

That intersection of apprehension and adoration towards cars has existed since gasoline-powered automobiles first rolled into our lives in the 1890s. The Ford Model T and assembly lines brought cars to the masses, and served as an engine for post-war economic growth.

But those weren't the only changes fueled by cars. "It is fundamental to virtually everything that we do in modern society and how we operate within it," Gardner said. "But then, at the same time, [we] know that they're polluting our cities and contributing to the loss of habitats and changing the whole way that we live in the world. I think beginning in the early- to mid-1960s, you really start seeing these artists who were kind of taking the automobile to task."

Like Andy Warhol with his work "Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times":

Altschul said, "It really speaks about the horrors of what a bad car accident can do."

"The violence of the automobile is really sort of front-and-center in this piece," Gardner said.

And this poster by German graphic artist Klaus Staeck:

"The crisscrossing of roads across the whole kind of urban landscape, it's a world profoundly changed," Gardner said.

"And chaos kind of, like, which way, every way, they're all wrapping over each other."

"There's also this kind of hope that is growing from this kind of chaos of the urban landscape, and you really see that there might be a new direction or a new way of thinking about how the cars can transform our lives."

Today there are an estimated one-and-a-half billion cars around the world. It's a statistic driving debates over electric cars and infrastructure, and one that's led us to ponder what's around the bend on this century-old joyride with cars.

Altschul asked, "Are we at this inflection point? Is that, you know, where we are today?"

"We're certainly at a changing point in the ways that cars are going to be manufactured for years to come," Gardner said. "The question of whether the car is a good thing or a bad thing is a question we'll continue to grapple with for generations."

For more info:

"Automania" at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (Sculpture Garden exhibit through October 11; gallery portion on view through January 2).Exhibition catalogue: "Automania," edited by Juliet Kinchin (Museum of Modern Art), available in Hardcover and eBook via Amazon and Indiebound

Story produced by Sara Kugel. Editor: Greg McLaughlin.

See also:

BMW's Art Cars: A blend of art and speed ("Sunday Morning")The Aston Martin, a piece of automotive art ("Sunday Morning")Nature transforms junkyard cars into art ("Sunday Morning")

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Adrienne Warren on becoming Tina Turner

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