Sue Scott Gallery

Motion as Metaphor: The Automobile in Art

Sue Scott, Virginia Beach Center for the Arts (exhibition catalogue)


oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches, Collection of Dar & Geri Reedy, Dellwood, MN

...we declare that the world 's splendour has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile, its hood adorned with great pipes like snakes with explosive breath…a roaring automobile, which seems to run like a machine gun is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. (1)

So declared the Italian Futurists in 1909 in a manifesto outlining their philosophy.

Automobile themes introduced by the Futurists over eighty years ago are germane today and recur in an exhibition exploring the visual and iconographical use of the automobile in art. These themes include:

• technological advancement;

• modernity;

• freedom;

• machismo;

• power; and

• sensations including eroticism, intoxication, simultaneity and dynamism.

Cars are central to contemporary life and it is not surprising that images of the automobile are used repeatedly by contemporary artists to communicate these ideas. As Gerald Silk noted in his essay in Automobile and Culture, "Almost as soon as it was invented, the automobile began to make its way into the art world."(2)

The function of the automobile is to provide motion, more precisely locomotion. So even in a still shot, the use of the auto interjects the concept of motion ...motion arrested, motion stopped or potential motion. On a conceptual level, the automobile can also denote a social or psychological motion—cars often convey social status and image.

This exhibition Motion As Metaphor: The Automobile in Art explores the metaphorical use of the automobile in art throughout the 20th Century. It features a selection of forty-two paintings, prints, drawings, photographs and sculpture, all of which have the automobile as their theme.

Works in this exhibition reflect the use of automobiles and the related metaphors of motion to explore a number of concepts important to different artists. The ideas to be discussed in this essay include: Personal Mythology; Man as Machine; the Urban Landscape; the Open Road; the Thrill of the Chase; and Popular Culture.

Other works will be discussed in terms of styles and techniques. They include Photo-Realism, Realism and Assemblage to Abstraction.

Personal Mythology

For a number of artists, the car is a personal statement and can become autobiographical in its depiction.

To grafitti artist Robin VanArsdol the car, specifically the Corvette, is part of his personal imagery. It is an image that originates from his childhood fantasy of the sports car; the artist remembers making drawing after drawing of the Corvette when he turned sixteen.

VanArsdol notes that the Corvette is idolized by middle America; it is America's challenge to the European sports cars such as BMWs and Alpha Romeos. One year, VanArsdol lived out his fantasy by buying a Corvette. He soon discovered a similarity between painting and driving a Corvette in that both have a single focus: "When you paint, nothing else mat•ters. When you drive a Corvette, nothing else matters.” (3)

In Right of Way, 1987, VanArsdol's white Corvette, limned in black, is set against a hot red/yellow background. VanArsdol's Corvette is contrary in nature; like the artist, it does not play by the rules and as such is often depicted driving sideways or upside down. This particular work, executed in three panels, has a Dada twist in that the artist likes to see the panels switched during the course of an exhibition so that the direction of the cars remains unpredictable.

Much of Jonathan Borofsky's art is autobiographical and his doodle-like drawing Untitled at 2,490,047(Borofsky assigns a number to each of his works as it is completed) has a similar quality of boyhood fantasy seen in VanArsdol's painting. Here, however, the artist places himself in the driver's seat of a sports car, while VanArsdol's Corvette seems to be an extension of the artist's persona.

Realist artist Alex Katz came to prominence in the early fifties when he broke away from the stronghold of Abstract Expressionism to paint tenaciously the figure. Because Katz usually paints interiors or portraits, cars rarely appear in his art. Most often, the artist paints what he knows and looks to his environment for inspiration, often depicting friends, family, other artists and poets. This painting, Vincent and Ada in the Car, 1972, is interesting because he has taken some of his most familiar subjects—wife Ada and son Vincent—and placed them in the car. The two are obviously on their way somewhere. Vincent is portrayed at the age when he would rather go than stay. Typical of Katz is the way he has cropped and enlarged the work to increase the dramatic impact on the viewer.

To California artist Frank Romero, the automobile is Los Angeles. Romero's cars are fantasy cars; they are cars that never existed although they have a Packard body and are reminiscent of cars of the thirties and forties, styles Romero remembers from his childhood.

Along with Carlos Almaraz, Romero was a founding member of "Los Four," a group of four Chicano artists who banded together in an attempt to deal with the institutionalized art system. Their efforts were rewarded when, in 1974, "Los Four" were featured in an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum, the first major museum showing of Chicano artists. Romero's work came to the attention of an even larger audience when, in 1984, he was chosen to paint a mural for the Olympic Games held in Los Angeles that year.

Romero's work is a blend of his Hispanic roots, the influence of Mexican muralists and mainstream contemporary art, which he gleaned from college and two years of living in New York City. His heritage is particularly apparent in his use of bright colors, often thickly applied directly from the tube, and his exuberant brand of realism.

His paintings are autobiographical. Personal references as well as recognizable architectural structures and actual localities recur in his paintings. For example, Crossroads, 1990, is a cartoon of a mural (done after the mural was completed) painted with students at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. The painting celebrates the car culture of Los Angeles and the California ideology which insists on the right to have fun. It contains many references to Santa Monica: the breakwater, ships, important buildings, the DC-3 Restaurant at the airport and even a tiny replica of the mural itself.

Fiesta Car, 1990, is one in a series of car images which Romero uses as an anthropomorphic icon of California. Yet it is also about art with its thick abstract application of pure color on a mahogany surface.

Man as Machine

With his Falling Man series, which has been ongoing throughout his career, Ernest Trova explores the transformation of modern man into machine. Trova's robots are always anonymous, highly polished and at times disconcertingly human. The central image is a simplified human figure which Trova will hinge, bend, dissect or in the case of Study/Falling Man, 1966, place between wheels.

By building on one of the oldest traditions of art history—portraiture—Trova paints a picture of what could happen to the human race, not only as the result of a dependency on machines but also from a willingness to let them do the thinking. When these decision-making powers are removed, the followers become mere automatons. In Study/Falling Man, Trova has taken this conversion to an extreme; although human attributes remain, the visual effect is more machine-like than human.

Urban Landscapes

Painters of the landscape have long been an important component of art history and art movements. This is no less the case when it comes to contemporary landscape painters. However, rather than painting the traditional bucolic scenes, artists such as Yvonne Jacquette, David Kapp, Jonathan Jansen, Rackstraw Downes and Wayne Thiebaud look to their surroundings for inspiration when rendering their urban landscapes of massive highway structures, buildings, bridges and automobiles.

Odd-angle views of the city have fascinated Yvonne Jacquette for close to twenty years. Her early works were Precisionist in style, featuring close-ups of traffic lights and signs. As her work developed, Jacquette became intrigued with the physical properties of paint, and later works such as Mississippi Night Lights (Minneapolis), 1985-86, are more painterly in style. Although this is a print, the artist uses a looser abstraction enhancing the feeling of flux inherent in the moving water and speeding cars.

Capturing the essence of movement and light is equally important to New York artist David Kapp, who works from quickly rendered sketches of the city. Kapp paints cars exclusively, placing them on roadways and bridges, yet he sees his work as more about concept and mood—the spirit of the city—than about the automobile on the road.

Although he uses traffic as his departure point for a painting, ultimately his concerns are those of an abstract painter—line, space, color and composition. As a result, his works are often more abstract than realistic.

"Detail is the enemy,” (4) Kapp said, indicating his concern with the overview rather than specifics, the idea rather than a literal interpretation. Both Aerial Noctume, 1982, and FDR Drive North, 1986, are first seen as large abstract grids; only after close inspection does one realize they are aerial views of the city. Kapp's play with lights and darks, moody shadows and flickering sparks are reminiscent of Whistler's romantic near-abstractions.

Jonathan Jansen, an American artist currently residing in Rome, Italy, takes a different approach in his urban landscapes, choosing instead to depict isolated terrain. Many of Jansen's paintings are from his trips to Florida, where he has spent some time. The bright, almost blinding Florida light shimmers like an oasis.

Jansen's cars are lonely and silent, standing vigil by a gas station or fast food restaurant. The horizon fades away to nothingness as the viewer experiences an existential loneliness through Jansen's eyes.

The precise urban landscapes of Rackstraw Downes are as detailed and specific as those of Richard Estes, yet Downes relies on his oil study sketches such as Sketch/Cross Bronx, 1983, rather than photography, to create his initial grids. After the grid is transferred to the canvas, the entire work is painted completely on-site, regardless of weather or traffic conditions.

Like many artists of his generation, Downes began as an abstract painter during his college days at Yale University. Gradually, he evolved into a realistic landscape painter and over the past few decades has become known as one of the finest painters of the urban landscape. Downes looks at the most common of city scenes and through his eyes, concrete, steel and roadways take on a restrained romanticism. His masculine palette of browns, greys and steel blues provides the perfect vehicle for portraying the city.

Downes' particular view of urban life is unlike that of Jacquette and Kapp, who depict frenetic activity. Rather, he sees a quiet beauty in urban terrain.

Early in his career California artist Wayne Thiebaud began painting realistically and as a result was categorized, along with artists such as Alex Katz, as a New Realist. However, with his background in commercial art which imparted a certain illustrative quality to his art and his choice of subject matter—often food items such as cakes, cupcakes, pies and candy—he was later branded a Pop artist, a label which garnered the widest acceptance. His early works explored the dichotomy of seeing versus desire, craving versus appetite. In Thiebaud's brand of realism, the object was a vessel for social commentary.

Thiebaud's urban landscapes, which he began painting in the late seventies, are often composites of the San Francisco and Los Angeles terrains. Mouthwatering confections have given way to steep hills, tilted corners and odd-angle perspectives as in City Police Car, 1986-88. Thiebaud notes that what interested him about painting pies and cakes was their geometric—abstract—shapes. In these urban-scapes, he is still using these rectilinear abstract shapes—this time rectangles and triangles—for his compositions. These, coupled with his loose brushwork, give the painting an overall abstract quality.

Yet the element of realism and portrayal of popular culture are still present. A police car speeding up and down the hills is a common scene not only in San Francisco but in cinematic interpretations of the city. The only reference point for San Francisco for many people is what has been gleaned from television and movie screens.

The Open Road

Artists Allan D'Arcangelo and Edward Ruscha, rather than using the actual automobile, painted the scenery one might pass while driving along the highway. Highway US 1, Panel 3, 1963, is one of five paintings D'Arcangelo exhibited at his first one-man show in New York in 1963. The five panels were initially installed in such a way that evoke the sensation of driving down the highway.

Similarly, Ruscha's now well-known Standard Station, 1966, has both a universal and personal significance for the artist. The scene—a gas station—is a familiar one to any highway traveler in the early sixties. To Ruscha, who left Oklahoma at age 18 to attend art school in Los Angeles, it evokes memories of the oft-traveled Highway 66 which connected Oklahoma to California.

Both pictures have the flattened images, solid colors and commercial slickness now associated with the Pop movement emerging at the time. In addition, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, published in 1957, was a call to an entire generation of readers to reject the traditional Post-World War II suburban life in favor of an unencumbered life on the road. In many ways, paintings such as these can be seen as visual manifestations of the philosophy espoused by Kerouac and other Beat writers and thus metaphorically came to represent freedom and individuality.

If the open road symbolized freedom of expression, the image of a policeman often represented repression. This idea is clearly portrayed in William T. Wiley's Image for Highway, 1960, in which a near life-size policeman on a motorcycle confronts the viewer. Even with the date of this work—1960—it is not surprising that Wiley's style is a combination of the figurative with expressionistic brushstrokes and bright colors. As an artist living and working in San Francisco, Wiley comes out of the Bay Area Figurative tradition of Richard Diebenkorn and David Park that rejected pure abstraction, so prevalent in New York, in favor of an expressive figuration.

Elements of Pop art are also present in Wiley's choice of a policeman as his central subject, for it is an everyday, almost banal subject matter, ubiquitous at times. Expressive brushstrokes serve to indicate motion, as Wiley puts his viewer in the driver's seat whizzing past the police radar, moving too fast to stop.

California artist Richard Sigmund uses word imagery to recreate the "Stop" sign often found painted on the road near an intersection. In a type of Abstract pointillism, Sigmund uses drips and splatters to create an overall field of grey tones, which become more abstracted the farther one gets from the painting.

David Salle, one of the most important artists to emerge in the 1980s, looks to realism and popular culture for his imagery. Labeled a Neo-Expressionist, Salle blends figuration with expressive brushwork, usually with an underlying social commentary. In his mature work, Salle places discordant elements side-by-side in an unconnected fashion, somewhat like a visual stream of consciousness. In Untitled (One Year at 55 mph), 1975, Salle surrounds his central image of a young man driving a car and words saying "One Year at 55 MPH" with a seemingly unrelated border of signatures.

Although the meaning here is obscure, it could be an admonition—either to himself or his viewers—to slow down and spend a year driving the speed limit and obeying the law. On the other hand, it could be a reference to some sort of forced restriction, where the man shown has no choice—for whatever reasons -but to drive and live within the constraints of the law. Unlike Sigmund, who tells his viewers to "Stop," Salle is merely warning his to slow down.

The Thrill of the Chase

To many artists the automobile represents raw power, pure speed and the inherent thrill of challenging death. Artists as diverse as Carlos Almaraz, Sal Scarpitta and Robert Rauschenberg have explored this aspect of danger in their art.

Carlos Almaraz, a Los Angeles artist, takes the challenge to its ultimate conclusion in his car crash paintings, a series of works executed in the late seventies and early eighties for which the artist is best known. Almaraz first gained national recognition when, as a member of "Los Four," his work was shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Los Four" was a group off our Chicano artists (among them Frank Romero, also included in this exhibition) who looked beyond traditional art historical influences to their own heritage—particularly the Mexican muralists—for inspiration. What was groundbreaking about this exhibition was that prior to it, these Latino artists had never shown in a museum; their work could only be seen on the street in the form of murals, graffiti and "living art" consisting of painted people.

It was once said that Almaraz saw the open road as a metaphor for life. Therefore, one might speculate about Almaraz's intent in Car Crash, 1979, which depicts two automobiles—one of them a police car—at the moment of impact. With the road as a metaphor for life, do the cars represent people moving through life on a path fraught with both opportunity and danger? If so, this painting could be seen as a collision with law and/or authority—a common sight in the Chicano neighborhoods where Almaraz grew up. On another level, perhaps this represents the artist's personal struggle with the art world power structures.

With his vibrant colors and expressive brushwork, Almaraz not only celebrates his heritage, but also creates a visual freneticism of movement and power. The elongated format and bouncing tire enhance this sense of muscle and motion.

Of all the artists in this exhibition, Salvatore Scarpitta has probably taken the manifesto written by the Italian Futurists to its furthest extreme. The Futurists celebrated the beauty of the speeding automobile; Scarpitta took the race car off the track and placed it on a pedestal of racing mats (seen by the artist as skinned tires) declaring, along the lines of Marcel Duchamp, that it was indeed a work of art. Yet, the car also exists as a working, racing machine.

In Sprint Car, 1985, Scarpitta has blurred the lines between sculpture and painting. By its three-dimensional nature, the work exists as a free-standing sculpture. Yet by hand painting it, Scarpitta not only presents the car as a painting, but by incorporating personal references—such as a drawing of his Pit Bull Vito -makes it an autobiographical statement as well.

Scarpitta was one of the first artists to show with Leo Castelli in New York City and this race car is the first among several that he and Castelli own together. Acknowledged by Scarpitta as "the most beautiful car I have ever had," Sprint Car has seventeen victories to its credit. In its glistening beauty, even with its motion arrested, it stands as a testament to speed and power, challenging death to obtain victory.

Robert Rauschenberg examines the dangerous aspect of racing in Features from Currents, 1970. Difficult to categorize, Rauschenberg has been called both a Proto-Pop artist and a Neo-Dadist. He began his career in the early fifties by reacting against the stronghold and style of Abstract Expressionism. One of the ways he did this was by using imagery gathered from a variety of sources, including newspapers and magazines as well as found objects and combining them together in a single work. In addition to his unique imagery, Rauschenberg was equally innovative with his process, inventing techniques that enabled him to transfer these pictures directly onto paper or canvas.

Rauschenberg is interested in the discordant elements of life and he sees his work as a sort of visual reporting. By throwing out a number of scenes—much the way sights appear on the television when one rapidly flips from channel to channel, Rauschenberg creates an unfocused disarray, forcing a closer look at one's surroundings.

For example, at first glance, Features from Currents, 1970, seems to be a jumbled arrangement of newspaper clippings. Four scenes trace a race car crash with the central image actually capturing the very moment the car flips over on the driver. Another scene shows the wrecked car with a lifeless form. Surrounding this are seemingly unrelated topics—typewriters, Mick Jagger being arrested, a story about a Magnolia tree, another reporting on the migration of pigeons. Yet at the same time, these images explore the ironies of life and death; the same newspaper that vividly depicts a man's death is equally concerned with migrating birds. In the tradition of 17th century Flemish painters who often depicted age-old proverbs, Rauschenberg seems to be telling his viewers, "Not a plow stops when a man dies."

 Popular Culture

Many artists, particularly Pop artists, chose the automobile as one of many images that represented popular culture.

Pop artist James Rosenquist began his artistic career as a billboard painter, and the scale and realistic imagery from his days as a sign painter are carried over into his art. His sometimes giant compositions feature unrelated pictures taken from commercial sources such as television, magazines and newspapers. And although the images are, in fact, unrelated, what they do have in common is their visual impact. Rosenquist is not necessarily telling a story; he is presenting a picture of the visual images that bombard viewers constantly throughout the day.

In That Margin ... (Great Ideas of Westtern Man), 1965, Rosenquist juxtaposes canned spaghetti with a car door, two images that recur in his paintings from the sixties. Placed by each other, the two pictures are visually discordant, although the idea behind them is not. In a larger sense, perhaps each has been used symbolically to stand for food and transportation—equally necessary in 20th century life.

A member of the London School, David Hockney left England at a relatively early age and moved to Los Angeles where his art captured the life style, ebullient colors and sense of light indigenous to California. As a realist painter, photography is an important component of Hockney's technique, usually serving as studies for his larger paintings. Eventually, Hockney took the pictures and pieced them together in a collage.

An example of this photo-collage technique is Steering Wheel, 1982, where Hockney has taken several photographs of the interior of his Mercedes Benz as well as the road ahead, and by piecing them together, creates a complete picture. Hockney is interested in the time sequence of paintings, and by fragmentation, similar to Picasso's Cubist works, he introduces a sense of time as the eye initially takes in the overall work, but then sees it as parts of a whole.

Red Grooms is known as a sculptor, orchestrator of happenings and environments, and as a fIlmmaker. He once described his works as "proletariat," explaining that he was attracted to the energy and rawness of that class. Because his subjects are so often drawn from everyday life, he has been categorized as a Pop artist. Visually, however, his work differs from most Pop artists in that he eschews commercial slickness in favor of self-styled caricatures for which he has become so well-known. The color lithograph cut-out London Bus, 1984, is a perfect example of the rowdy fun Grooms celebrates in his art.


A new form of realism emerged in the early sixties, using the mechanical advantages of the camera. By 1967, there were so many artists working in this mode that Louis K. Meisel, a New York art dealer, created the word Photo-Realism to help identify the emerging movement.

This early definition identified a Photo-Realist as "an artist who used a camera instead of a sketch pad, transferred images to the painting surface by means of a grid or projector, and had the technical ability to make a painting look photographic."(5) Later, Meisel narrowed the definition determining that a first generation Photo-Realist must have exhibited as a Photo-Realist by 1972 and must have committed five years to the development of Photo-Realism.

Photo-Realists are less interested in the content suggested by the automobile than they are in the reflective surface qualities of chrome and glass. All emotion is stripped away and the hand of the artist is negated, often by use of the airbrush.

Of the thirteen original Photo-Realists identified in Meisel's book Photo-Realism, six are represented in this exhibition. These include Robert Bechtle, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Ron Kleeman and John Salt. In addition, two artists, Peter Maier and Richard Niewerth, use the camera and grid layout favored by the Photo-Realists. Although they were not part of the original movement, both are accomplished in the

Photo-Realist technique

California artist Robert Bechtle was influenced by the figurative style of Bay Area painter Richard Diebenkorn, the banal subject matter and commercial slickness of the California Pop artists and the American flavor inherent in Edward Hopper paintings. The first California artist to exhibit a Photo-Realist painting, Bechtle began using the camera in the mid-sixties when it was not generally accepted as an artistic aid. However, within a few years, it would see widespread use.

Although photography is essential to Bechtle's technique, he is not overly concerned with the quality of the photographs, nor with controlling the composition. Rather, he prefers to work from 'snapshots: quick photographs similar to those found in family photo albums. Bechtle deliberately chooses colorless subject matter, wanting his viewers to wonder about his choice.  

Coors, 1974, is a classic example of Bechtle's style and intent. In a typically suburban scene, a man poses between two cars on his driveway. In one hand is a can of Coors beer; the other rests complacently on his hip as he surveys the neighborhood. There is nothing remarkable about the scene, yet it visually captures the lifestyle of the middle class.  Don Eddy, the youngest of the original Photo-Realists is also from California, but he worked apart from the other Photo-Realists, developing his style on his own. Probably influential on his evolution was the fact that his father owned a custom shop called Eddy's Garage, where the artist became proficient with the airbrush (a medium favored by many Photo-Realists), as well as familiar with the automobile, a primary subject in his early work.

Bumper Section XXI, 1970, was painted in the artist's twenty-sixth year and shows the proficiency he had already achieved in the beginning stages of his career. In this painting, Eddy isolates a section of the car, enlarging the scale while creating an overall composition. Although certain attributes of the automobile are identifiable—the bumper, the grill and part of a headlight—the visual effect is more abstract than realistic. In fact, it is these abstract concepts of color, spatial relationships and design that concern Eddy more than a realistic depiction. Along these lines, Eddy prefers to work from black and white photographs, so he can be free to arrange the colors according to a visual composition rather than reality.

Photo-Realist Richard Estes is best known for his meticulous rendering of city street scenes. His high degree of detail is achieved by using a 4 x 5 camera, enabling Estes to record minutiae that might otherwise be missed. However, Estes does not necessarily reproduce everything from the photographs, including those things that best complete the compositional aspects of the painting.

 With its single point perspective and reflective surfaces, a street lined with cars and void of people (whom Estes thinks "romanticize" a painting), (6) Paris Street Scene, 1972, is quintessential Estes. However, unlike most of Estes' works, which are New York city scenes, this one is a street in Paris, where Estes lived and worked in 1972.

Ralph Goings, like a number of other realist painters, began his art career during the height of Abstract Expressionism, and his early works were abstract in nature. In the early sixties, encouraged by the acceptance of realism on several levels, he began to paint realistically. At first he worked from magazines, but by the late sixties, he was taking and painting from his own photographs.

Except for Airstream, 1970, perhaps his best known painting, all of Goings' first Photo-Realist paintings were of pick-up trucks. Like Estes, he rarely depicted people in these works, preferring instead for the truck to symbolize its driver, whether working class, cowboy, mechanic or maverick. Dick's Union General, 1971, is a marvelous example of work from this period in which he features a blue pick-up truck in three-quarter profile parked in front of a restaurant. Although not shown, one can almost visualize the driver.

Goings works from slides projected onto the canvas, yet does not feel compelled to stay true to the projected image, often rearranging colors for the sake of composition. An example of this can be seen in the way the artist picks up the blue and orange of the truck and repeats it in the dots on the restaurant facade. Goings does not use an airbrush yet achieves an equal degree of facility with the paint, virtually eliminating the hand of the artist by his high degree of dexterity. Interestingly, Goings refers to his technique as "rendering" perhaps in reference to the technical perfection he achieves "copying" from a photograph.

The image of the truck occurs almost as often as the race car in the art of Ron Kleeman, who began as a sculptor, and later turned to painting, eventually incorporating the camera into his technique. His first Photo-Realist works were of race cars, and although the surface quality of these machines appealed to the artist, he was equally interested in the phallic symbolism he saw in the race car.

There is a certain aspect of performance art present in Kleeman's ideology. For example, before painting a series involving taxicabs, he became a licensed taxi driver; before creating works based on firetrucks, he became an honorary fireman; and for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977, he developed "Team Kleeman" which, although it had no car, was complete with sponsors, jackets and decals.

Stars and Stripes Forever, 1977, is a painting of an Indianapolis 500 tow truck. Kleeman, who is enamored with iconic images and symbols, was probably interested in the American flag imagery of the truck. On another level, the truck's customized paint job refers to the all-American aspect of the Indianapolis 500.

Unlike Kleeman, English artist John Salt does not paint automobiles at their most glamorous. Rather, he paints arrested motion—cars when they are broken down and dilapidated, abandoned and left to rust. Salt left England in 1970 for a seven year stint in New York City where he learned, among other things, to paint with the airbrush. It was also during this time that he became intrigued with the car as subject and it is interesting to compare the difference between an all—American approach like Kleeman's with the way a European views the car.

He notes, "The automobile seemed like such obvious subject matter to me. It's so large and ugly in America. It's not so important to us in England, and I wouldn't have even thought of painting it at home.'"(7)

Pontiac in a Deserted Parking Lot, 1971, is an important early work and offers insight into Salt's technique. Once the artist locates his subject he begins taking several quick photographs and is not concerned with a finished composition. In fact, often it is the odd-angle and strangely cropped photographs that he ends up using. Salt may take hundreds of slides before choosing a final one. In this particular painting, the full frontal view is so close-up that is seems distorted, yet this distortion enhances the confrontational—even anthropomorphic—aspect of the car.

Although the artist insists there is no underlying meaning in his subject matter, one cannot help but see content in his selections. Wrecked cars like the deserted Pontiac are often eyesores along the highway, reminding consumers of the built-in obsolescence and limited lifespan of the automobile.

Artist Peter Maier was part of the General Motors design staff and served as Senior Automotive Designer for the Chevrolet, Pontiac and Cadillac Motor Divisions for eleven years before leaving to devote full time to his art. Surprisingly, he initially chose not to use the automobile in his paintings (he painted life-size, realistic Clydesdales for a time) but eventually returned to the car as his primary subject matter, focusing on classics such as the Vintage Mercedes Benz, the Auburn, and as seen in this exhibition, the Duesenberg.

Maier insists that his choice of the car as subject has more to do with the detail, perspective and surfaces inherent in the automobile -abstract concerns -than it does with meaning one could ascribe to the car as subject. He sees it as more of a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

The artist works from photographs, but in an unorthodox way. He will take a number of snapshots, focusing on different areas of the car—the bumper, the grill, the lights—achieving a tight focus in a single area while letting the surrounding areas blur. These will be used as he draws the different parts of the front end. In this way, the perspective is flattened and a high degree of detail is achieved across the entire picture plan. By flattening the car front and extending it across the entire length of the painting, the automobile becomes confrontational as it projects out into the viewer's space. Because of the anthropomorphic qualities inherent in many cars—lights become eyes and grills the mouth—this Duesenberg seems particularly human as it greets the viewer.

As one can see from the study entitled A Perspective Depth-of-Field and Shape Study, 1990, Maier uses a grid as part of his process. Although the final result is a highly detailed rendering, the individual patterns that make up the whole are actually abstract patterns, a similar result achieved by Photo-Realist Chuck Close.

Achieving a high degree of detail is equally important to Maryland artist Richard Niewerth as seen in the Red Convertible, 1983. Niewerth, whose primary subject is the car, sees the automobile as a cultural phenomenon, something that is central to the present culture and to people's lives. Thus, it seems natural to the artist to focus on a topic that is cardinal to 20th century American life.

Like Maier, Niewerth paints fragments of the car, rarely presenting a total view. His fragments are usually parts of the car that one would actually confront in approaching the Vehicle—the bumper, door, door handle. For example, Red Convertible seems to be an odd-angle view unless one considers that this is the exact angle one sees when approaching the car. Interestingly, the make and model of the car are incidentals to the artist.

Equally important to Niewerth are the abstract concerns of color and light. Although the artist works from photographs, he takes liberties with these by enhancing the colors and blurring the lines -allowing the overall composition to dissolve into abstractions. As a result, the artist achieves what he calls a "tranformational quality" as the painting metamorphosizes realistic photographs into diffused shapes of color and light.


The realistic paintings of New York artist Stephen Lack have a dichotomy not immediately apparent. On the surface, the bright lush colors and rich brush strokes are visually pleasing while the subjects and scenes have a comforting familiarity.

Yet, on closer inspection, one becomes aware that something is not quite right; matters are not necessarily as they appear. Lack's street scenes and interiors are often peopled. In fact, it is the presence of and the way these figures are depicted that create a sense of unease. His car paintings on the other hand—which make up a substantial part of his oeuvre—rarely include the human figure, contributing to a sense of isolation. Often, the car anthropomorphically becomes the figure, menacing in its own right.

For instance, in Shroud Car, 1989, a car covered with a protective cloth is parked in front of a suburban home. One can tell by the size and design of the house that the owner is wealthy. The loosely applied strokes of pure white, baby blue, pinks and purples enhance an overall sense of well-being created by this pleasant scene. Yet, the pastel colors also give a sense of otherworldliness. There is something disquieting going on. Where are all the people? Why is the car covered in the day? The gestural way Lack has painted the shrouded car creates doubt as to whether the car is standing still or moving. In fact, with its ghostly appearance, one wonders if the car exists at all, or if the shroud is an allusion to death. The entire scene is cloaked in mystery, causing the viewer to sense more than is portrayed.

Less mysterious but nonetheless intriguing is Large Motif, 1990. A fuschia sports car is presented against a painterly grey background. Above the car is a large painting—Chinese in flavor—of a blooming branch. The grey interior is meant to be a garage where the car could be incarcerated and the landscape is only memory.

This Montreal-born artist came to artistic maturity in the Village in New York City in the early eighties, and the social commentary that re-entered art at that time is equally present in his work, although less overt.

It is difficult to categorize John Gutmann even though his photographs are primarily documentary. Initially trained as an artist, Gutmann left Germany as Hitler was coming to power, traveling to the United States where he began taking photographs for European magazines. What sets Gutmann's photographs apart from traditional photojournalism is his choice of subject matter. From the time he arrived in the United States and settled in San Francisco, Gutmann was enamored with popular culture—cars, graffiti, signs—and it is this vantage point that he offered his European audience.

Yes! Columbus Did Discover America!, 1938, combines two of Gutmann's favorite subjects—cars and words—in a single photograph. A car, completely covered with sayings and slogans is parked in front of a store that is equally plastered with signs. Although this does not typify life in the United States, it is distinctly American, demonstrating a freedom of speech that did not exist at the time in Gutmann's homeland. Likewise, Switch to Dodge, 1936, blends words and car imagery, this time to impart a message of capitalism and commercial freedom. Here, Gutmann adds an interesting twist by including people walking by, who are dwarfed by the signs, yet oblivious to their existence.

It is this attraction to popular culture and the desire to capture the unusual that links Gutmann's work to contemporary art. It is interesting to note that both visually and conceptually one can see an anticipation of Pop artists, graffiti artists and artists who use word imagery.

Val Lewton, who has lived and exhibited in the District of Columbia for over twenty years uses a realistic style to document the change and evolution taking place in Downtown Washington, D.C. More often than not, cars are central to his composition, where he juxtaposes them with scenes of urban renovation—the old being destroyed to make way for the new.


Assemblage artists, building on the tradition of collage, use actual cars, car parts or model cars. In some ways, these assemblage artists can be seen as deconstructionists; by using cars, car parts and allusions to actual cars, they tear down traditionally held notions, forcing the viewer to see things differently.

For artists Arman, Christo and Connelly, the automobile is but one of many images culled from the world around them, rendered in a way unique to the vision of each artist. Although visually the art of each of these men differs, what they do have in common is the humorous twist with which they portray common objects, thus forcing the viewer to see them in a new light. Chamberlain and Benglis create abstractions that are referential to the world of the automobile.

Many see French-born Arman as an assemblage artist, for he takes both old and new objects and reassembles them. Objects such as cars, violins, suitcases, paint brushes, paint tubes, and pliers have all been transformed from object to art medium in the hands of Arman. Sometimes the artist will alter the materials -by burning them, bronzing them or encasing them in cement or polyurethane -as he has with the toy cars in Untitled, 1982-85. In other cases they will be piled together or glued onto the canvas.

In the case of Untitled, 1982-85, it is unclear whether the piece is meant to be seen simply as toy cars encased in plastic, or to represent life-size cars. Either way, the work is the result of a vivid imagination seeing everyday objects not in a utilitarian sense but with an artistic eye. As Arman notes,

"I have a very simple theory. I have always pretended that things compose themselves. My composition consists of letting objects compose themselves…!” (8)

In the late fifties, Bulgarian artist Christo became known for his "packaged art" in which the artist would take preexisting objects and wrap them in canvas or plastic, thus transforming them into works of art. Over the years, Christo became more ambitious as he wrapped trees, monuments and islands.

An important aspect of Christo's oeuvre are his drawings which either document the event or detail a conceptual idea. An example of this is the mixed media piece Wrapped Automobile (Volvo), 1984, which is a lithograph of a wrapped car, with collaged twine attached.

Likewise, Arch Connelly uses a model car in his small sculpture Car, 1982. By completely covering the exterior of the model with faux pearls, Connelly drastically changes the appearance of the work and alters the meaning. In the viewer's mind, the model is somehow transformed from a toy to a jewel, taking on a preciousness not often ascribed to either a model car or to an automobile. On another level, Connelly could be setting up the car as the Golden Calf, referring to the tendency of contemporary society to worship the car while using it to define status, wealth and place in society.

Connelly has been fascinated with the idea of travel since the mid-1980s, when he began taking "objects that transported"—cars, airplanes and the prows of ships—and encrusting them with jewels, pearls and glitter. As the artist notes, "when you put a skin on them, it changes things.” (9) To Connelly, the car is very American, representing modernism and the future. By taking this American icon and covering it with a seductive skin, Connelly is not only transforming the work into his own style, he is also illustrating that "life can be transformed into art." (10)

Artist John Chamberlain rejects the notion that his work contains deconstructed elements of automobile parts. To him, a wrecked car chassis is simply among the materials available to an artist. It is as viable as paint and canvas. The fact that the metal had a previous function and has a preformed shape and color makes it that much more interesting to the artist, giving him a "point of departure." (11)

Both Chamberlain's free-standing sculpture and his wall reliefs are made from crushed car parts. Although his initial intent in making the reliefs was to make “pictures on the wall," he sees works such as Fancy, 1965, as collage.

Lynda Benglis once said, "Content grows out of form. Having an iconographic content can give me a form." (12) This philosophy is perfectly exemplified in Diablo, 1990, a sculptural wall piece made of stainless steel mesh and aluminum. The piece is part of a series inspired by exotic cars; a Diablo is, in fact, a fancy sports car.

Over the years Benglis has experimented with a variety of media including latex, rubber, wax and bronze. Often, the medium is perfectly suited to the abstract idea the artist is giving form to. For example, in Diablo, although the work is totally abstract, the highly polished metal brings to mind the chrome of a car.

Often, Benglis will explore aspects of sexuality in her work and on this level, one can perhaps see this shiny abstraction as a metaphor for the sexuality inherent in an expensive and rare sports car.


The study of the automobile and its appearance in contemporary arts offers insight into the world of the late 20th century. As the Futurists anticipated and as this exhibition Motion as Metaphor: The Automobile in Art indicates, over the past century—since the introduction of the automobile—the car and images related to the car—gas stations, highways, tires -have made their way into the art world and as such form part of a complicated iconography.

Artists today have embraced the automobile as a viable and justified subject, continuing a long tradition laid out years ago by the Italian Futurists who stated:

We choose to concentrate our attention on things in motion, because our modem sensibility is particularly qualified to grasp the idea of speed. Heavy powerful motor-cars rushing through the streets of our city…These sources of emotion satisfy our sense of a lyric and dramatic universe, better than do two pears and an apple. (13)



-Sue Scott Washington, D.C.




1. George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940, New York: Penguin Books, 1975, p. 279.

2. Gerald Silk, Automobile and Culture, Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art and New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989, p.27.

3. Conversation between the author and Robin VanArsdol, January 24, 1991.

4. Georgia Marsh, "Interview with David Kapp," Bomb, Summer 1989, No. XXVII.

5. Louis K. Meisel, Photo-Realism, New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1989, p. 12.

6. Frederick R. Brandt, Late 20th-Century An, Selections from the Sydney and Frances Lewis Collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia: The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1985, p. 56.

7. Meisel, p.367.

8. Colin Naylor and Genesis P-Orridge, Editors, Contemporary Artists, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977, p. 43.

9. Conversation between the author and Arch Connelly, February 5, 1991.

10. Ibid.

11. Michael Auping, John Chamberlain Reliefs 1960-1982, Sarasota, Florida: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1983, p. IS.

12. Colin Naylor, p. 89.

13. George Heard Hamilton, p. 280.

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