Cars and art may not seem, at first, like natural partners.
But then you’ve probably haven’t heard of, or seen, BMW’s Art Cars.
Starting in the 1970s, the German giant car manufacturer embarked on a series of collaborations with some of the world’s most prominent contemporary artists, resulting in 19 unique creations, where a BMW model is reinterpreted as work of art.
BMW Art Car #1, by Alexander Calder
Prof Dr Thomas Girst, Global Head of Cultural Engagement at BMW Group, has the air of man enjoying his dream job. To him, the lines between art and technology are blurred; BMW is a “cultural brand”.
“I would love to argue that art, culture and the automobile, in this case BMW, go together very well,” Girst says. “And we have been active in the arts for 50 years, hundreds of engagements worldwide. We don’t speak of sponsorships, because we do long haul partnerships with cultural institutions and I think it’s great to not jump from event to event.”
Girst, speaking at the unveiling of the 1989 Art Car by Australian artists Ken Done, says those “meaningful” partnerships thrive in three particular fields; classical music and jazz, modern and contemporary art, and finally design and architecture.
As an art historian, the German knows only too well the role that the automobile has played in popular culture.
“Artists’ fascination with cars basically started with the invention of the automobile in the 1880s,” he says. “You had the futurists in Italy in 1909 publishing a manifesto raving about the beauty of the car which they hailed as the 'sculpture of the 20th century'. So for us to delve in there in the 70s, we were not new in the game.”
The idea of the art cars came from the active imaginations of Jochen Neerpasch, BMW motorsports director in the 1970s, and Herve Poulin, who was as passionate about contemporary art as he was about his day job, racing.
Alexander Calder with his 1975 creation
In 1975, Poulain commissioned American artist and friend Alexander Calder to paint the first art car, a BMW 3.0 CSL, which Poulain himself would race in that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race.
“It wasn’t meant to be [the first of] a series,” Girst adds. “It wasn’t a museum piece, they needed to race. But the moment this car left the pit stop, at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, everybody was hailing it, it was a love affair, and that’s when we thought we should continue. Great artists followed, such as Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, John Baldessari. Fantastic.”
Andy Warhol painting BMW Art Car #4
Though BMW blossomed in the 1970s, things had looked far less rosy in the previous decade or so.
“We were almost bankrupt in 1959, we were almost sold to Mercedes,” Girst says. “But we picked up after that, and there was some momentum with the  summer Olympics in Munich and also with our headquarter building, which is a beautiful ‘four-cylinder’ structure.”
For a resident of Munich and a child of the 1970s, Grist beems with pride. And for good reason.
The BMW Headquarters building is almost as famous as some of the cars the company has produced since its founding in 1916. Designed by Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer to look like a car’s four cylinders, it was completed in 1972 and officially opened the following year.
The Olympic Stadium and village, architectural accompaniments to the BMW Headquarters, are a reminder of a gloriously creative era.
“The Olympic Stadium is also a post-war German architectural icon right next to the BMW building,” says Girst. “I think it was Lucas ‘Rem’ Koolhaas, the great Dutch architect, who said the 70s were the last time that architects and engineers were really creating utopia together.”
BMW Headquarters, Munich
Ken Done’s work on the M3 on display in Dubai came at the end of the following decade.
The Australian, according to Grist, succeeded where other artists struggled. That is, by giving his design the perception of speed.
“He delved into the flora and fauna of his native Australia by looking at the colours of parrots and parrot fish, and at the Great Barrier Reef where you have all these great colourful fish. And he thought you can see the beauty of speed in fish swimming and in birds flying.”
Grist has been in charge of BMW’s cultural engagement since 2003, and retains a charming, childlike enthusiasm for the role. Working with artists from around the world has been, he insists, is “the most gratifying thing part of my job”.
In particular, he raves about the work of Cao Fei, the Chinese multimedia artist, who designed the 18th art car model in 2017. Cao became only the third female - after the American artist Jenny Holzer and the great South African painter Esther Mahlangu – and the youngest artist to leave an imprint on a BMW Art Car.
BMW Art Car #12, by Esther Mahlangu
“It was amazing to see her, in her mid-30s, take it into the 21st century by applying virtual reality, by applying augmented reality, by creating an app, by creating a film,” Girst says. “The artists really lead the way, and Cao Fei was amazing to work with on the M6 GT3 which was actually racing in Macau, and doing very well with the Brazilian race driver Augusto Farfus.”
BMW Art Car #19, by Cao Fei
There is no set timetable for BMW Art Car series. Years can go by without new introductions. When the time is right, inspiration, Grist says, will come from the contemporary artists themselves.
“The art cars are not a little gimmick or gadget for us, it’s really about our engagement in the arts,” he says. “I think of each and every one of them as an ambassador.”