In 1986, to mark the company’s 100th anniversary, Mercedes-Benz commissioned Andy Warhol to paint 20 remarkable automobiles that the German luxury car manufacturer had produced since 1886. If Warhol could spice up Mao and Queen Elizabeth, why not an iconic W 125 Grand Prix racer? Art collecting was enjoying a high-profile boom in Germany, and hiring a famous international artist to do some kind of commercial corporate update on a famous tradition of aristocratic portraiture was a clever marketing plan.
A tragedy derailed it.
Warhol was a little less than halfway through the lavish commission when he died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of just 58. The artist finished work on just eight of the cars before succumbing to major gallbladder surgery in February 1987. The paintings were not shown together in the United States.
27 of the 36 completed silkscreen images (80 were planned) and all 13 pencil drawings are currently on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, where Andy Warhol: Cars — Works from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection has just opened in the ground floor gallery . (The exhibition was co-organized by Petersen and Mercedes-Benz curator Renate Wiehager.) The art is paired with five of the eight vehicle models depicted in the paintings. Like much of what Warhol painted in the late 1970s and 1980s, the Mercedes paintings are mundane after the nearly flawless series of superlative art-changing works he produced between about 1961 and 1968. The vehicles, on the other hand, range from fascinating to extraordinary.
Come for the Warhols, stay for the cars.
And I say that knowing that cars are not my area of expertise. The only thing I know for sure about them is that my engineer grandfather designed a magneto for the Ford Model A, which replaced the highly successful Model T in 1928. End of deep understanding.
But I also know this: There’s a stunningly beautiful 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe, a silver model with a royal blue leather interior and matching leather trunk, strapped to the rear deck where it can be covetously eyed through the rear window. Next to it hang Warhol’s perfectly pretty, decidedly sleepy portraits. If I had the choice between the car and a painting, I would take the car immediately.
I’ve got a better handle on Warhol, and these screenprints are pretty much a flop. They look like ordinary posters for a teenager’s bedroom. An insurmountable dissonance that requires some explanation undermines them.
As with virtually all of his paintings, after the classic 1962 Marilyn Monroe paintings became a sensation, Warhol used commercially available photographs to create the basic silkscreen images that he printed on canvas. A helpful short film clip in the exhibition shows him printing a painting of Elvis Presley with the help of Gerard Malanga, the studio assistant who did much of the work on Warhol’s early works. The canvas might begin by being painted with a solid acrylic paint, or sometimes multiple shades of paint are applied in different shapes, with the screen-printed image printed on top. The drawings were made to work out the details.
Warhol had great style, but he wasn’t a great draftsman. The car drawings were probably made with an opaque projector. The photo for the screen print was projected onto a sheet of paper and the contours of the car were traced. These became secondary photo-silkscreens which were placed on top of the painted canvas and printed in different colors for visual interest. Some of the paintings are single frames, others are divided into grids of four, eight, or 12 repeating frames.
Warhol’s technique does not derive from the traditional practice of studio painting. Instead, it has two sources – one professional, one personal. Professionally, it was an inventive adaptation of commercial printing techniques derived from photographs – something he knew well from his highly successful career in advertising on Madison Avenue. Personally, it arose out of America’s gay subculture, which the artist knew equally well.
How does an ordinary photo become a painting? Warhol’s answer: by making paintings that are followed by photographs.
The photo is the equivalent of a fresh and untouched face – a given. Acrylic paints are like makeup—the foundation and the lipstick, the mascara and the blush, the wig and the jewelry.
The difference between the photograph and the painting was like the difference between the plain old boy next door James Slattery and the exquisite Candy Darling, to name Slattery’s transformation into the most beautiful cinematic superstar working at Warhol’s Factory. Drag could turn a boring black and white photo into a glamorous painting.
The problem with the Mercedes commission isn’t that the cars already started out with beauty on their side, so the paintings didn’t have much to do with it. On the show, the luxurious 300 SL, a remarkably streamlined 1954 Formula One Grand Prix car, and a low-top fiberglass experimental model from 1970, also with swinging gullwing doors, are surely among the most aesthetically pleasing cars of the 20th century. But Marilyn, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor weren’t exactly cozy before Warhol made his big screenprint number on their photographs in the 1960s.
The problem I think has to do with gender instead.
In binary American culture, the arts are collectively gendered feminine. Few would acknowledge it, but they’ve always been for girls representing drag. A Warhol painting offered a compelling exposure of a hidden cultural truth, not resistance to it. And he could successfully drag-paint entertainment celebrities of all kinds, whether Marilyn and Liz or Elvis and Muhammad Ali, because when he was done, the transformation from photograph to painting was reversed: what started out as entertainment remained entertainment.
Cars, on the other hand, are male-gendered by American culture—the individualized manifestation of the modern industrial dynamo. Cars resist Warhol’s lateral drag transformation. The crumpled paintings look silly at best and irrelevant at worst. The problem puzzled him.
Three photo-screen-printed canvases show Gottlieb Daimler or Karl Benz, engineers and founders of the later Mercedes-Benz companies, driving in an 1886 Daimler motorized carriage, which is generally considered to be the first automobile. (An intriguing replica stands nearby – a 19th-century horseless carriage.) They are the only paintings of people. But Warhol’s color-blocking attempt to transform old-fashioned photographs into something artfully abstract and modern fails, looking instead like C-Minus fliers from an undergraduate design class.
The rest of the paintings are mostly just boring, with a squiggle here and a flash there, just disguising a conventional photo of a car. As I looked at them, I kept thinking of a loosely related Warhol project – his great car crash paintings of 1963-64. These are not glamor cars. Photos taken from the tabloids instead show wrecked and upside down cars, mutilated bodies dangling and scattered.
In them, Warhol presented a founding myth of the New York School – that the proud masculinity of Jackson Pollock, who died in a drunk car crash on Long Island in 1956, was instrumental in an American acceptance of the “girly” category of art as art more global Cold War triumph. His magnificent, ethereal drip paintings alone weren’t enough; They needed a backstory that was butch. Pollock’s ruin merged with that of movie star James Dean, who also perished in a wreck. Civil rights movements surged in strength in the 1960s, and the arrogant, exclusionary, heterosexual white machismo that defined 1950s American culture was brilliantly exposed — and castrated — through the drag application of a feminine gay artist.
With the abbreviated Mercedes-Benz commission, nothing comes close to that achievement. But boy are the cars in the gallery stunning! As a bonus, Warhol’s own sleek two-tone 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is parked in the museum lobby. His name is emblazoned on the front and back of New York washstands. It is important to know that the artist did not have a driver’s license and never drove it; but like a painting, the artist’s car is actually signed.
“Andy Warhol: Cars — Works from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection”
Where: Petersen Automobile Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Monday-Sunday, 10am-5pm. Until January 22nd.
The information: (323-930-CARS), www.petersen.org