Rolling Sculpture: on the Automobile’s Aesthetics
Read an exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue Automania, about the provocative history of the car as an art object.
Jul 14, 2021
“Museum to Open First Exhibition Anywhere of Automobiles Selected for Design,” trumpeted a Museum of Modern Art press release in 1951. In the fall of that year, MoMA presented 8 Automobiles, a show of European and American cars selected by the curator Arthur Drexler for “their excellence as works of art.” The designation bewildered the public and journalists alike: “Yer nuts! Automobiles—that screwy art they call modern? You mean I got a hunk of art in my garage?” queried a “Joe Doakes” in one review. “Well, that’s right, brother, Automobiles are art,” came the response. “And so are your electric toaster and your washing machine and a great many other things you use every day without thinking . . . It’s the art of OUR age, and it’s a good thing that there are some institutions waking up to the fact.” The New York Times critic Aline Louchheim picked up the story in the form of conversation between a “Man from Mars” (M. from M.) and a testy, condescending “Museum Official” (Mus. Off.) trying to explain the automobiles’ presence:
Mus. Off.: Good Heavens, don’t you know automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture?
M. from M.: Good Earth, they are?
Mus. Off.: They have interior spaces corresponding to an outer form, like buildings. [. . .]
M. from M.: [. . .] I thought the most important points about an automobile were the excellence of its motor, its safety factors and the comfort it provides its passengers.
Mus. Off. (impatiently): Of course, certainly. But that is not our problem. This is an exhibition concerned with the aesthetics of motor car design.
M. from M. (eagerly): You mean, with chromium and that grille on the front which Europeans call “the dollar grin”?
Mus. Off. (shuddering): No, no, certainly not. That is just what we don’t mean. [. . .]
M. from M.: [. . .] Wonder how the public will take to this exhibition. People are touchy about cars. 
Car design certainly was, and still is, an emotive topic about which many people hold forthright views based on personal experience. But this accessible and ubiquitous industrial product raised larger questions about what qualified as modern art. In this regard, 8 Automobiles was in keeping with exhibitions of everyday objects and industrial design held at MoMA from the 1930s which prepared the way for the appearance of the automobile as art.
Willys-Overland Motors, Inc., Toledo, Ohio. Jeep M-38A1 Utility Truck. Designed 1952 (this example 1953)
8 Automobiles was in effect a “car-body show” that put issues of functionality, safety, and technical performance to one side. Two design approaches were highlighted—the envelope (epitomized by the sporty Cisitalia 202) and the box on wheels (exemplified by the Willys-Overland Jeep). Both cars would in due course be acquired by the Museum for its permanent collection. Undoubtedly the curatorial choices raised some hackles, and the Museum’s apparent European bias in the area of cars has been a topic of lively debate ever since. Philip Johnson described the Cisitalia’s body as being slipped over the chassis like a “dust jacket over a book”—clearly a car for the intelligentsia—whereas the Jeep, which combined the “appeal of an intelligent dog and perfect gadget,” came from lower down the evolutionary chain.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, car-themed toys and entertainment—ranging from Hans Brockage and Erwin Andra’s “rocking car” (1950) to the video game franchise
James Van Der Zee. Couple, Harlem. 1932
Cars have long functioned as a strategic tool of impression management among family, friends, and fellow citizens. To get on in 1920s America required owning an up-to-date and well-maintained automobile. According to Ise Gropius, “these respectable mechanized pets” were a kind of “calling card” in New York: “One is ‘attired’ in a Cadillac, a Buick, a Ford! . . . A solid, well-situated salesman doesn’t drive a Rolls Royce because that would be taken as snobbery, and an advanced individual no longer shows himself in a Ford! The auto has assumed the prestige functions that formerly belonged to the house.” This was certainly the case for a well-to-do couple photographed in the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in 1932, then in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance. The photographer, James Van Der Zee, was a leading figure of this movement. Swathed in his-and-hers raccoon coats, the couple exude majesty, but the real star of the portrait is the gleaming Cadillac V-16—a top-of-the-range luxury model styled by Harley Earl—with which they are posed. About four thousand of these cars were made in the 1930s, each with a customized chassis. For the pair in Van Der Zee’s photograph, this display of status would have had an added layer of meaning during a time when Black Americans faced discrimination in so many other areas of cultural expression.
Ketaki Sheth. Shilpa and Sheetal in their car, Harrow, Middlesex. 1995
A Mercedes in the portrait of twins Shilpa and Sheetal Patel, taken six decades later by Ketaki Sheth in the London borough of Harrow, similarly reflects the particular import that car ownership as a means of upward social mobility has in marginalized communities. Empowered by the possession of their own mobile space, the sisters—whose family had built up a successful auto parts business—are pictured outside the suburban home of their grandmother, who was among tens of thousands of Asians expelled from Uganda by President Idi Amin in 1972.
Edgar Ainsworth. Everywhere You Go You Can be Sure of Shell Gordale Scar - The Craven Fault, Yorks. 1934
In addition to making suburban living possible, cars opened up the countryside to mass leisure. “Everywhere You Go You Can Be Sure of Shell” was a 1930s advertising campaign through which Shell targeted an expanding group of middle-class British motorists. The damage wrought on natural landscapes by the construction of roads and filling stations and by invasive oil extraction was far from universally welcome. By presenting visions of the British countryside removed from disfiguring industry, Shell sought to divert attention from its association with environmental harm. Shell’s use of artists to soften its public image was a form of artwashing, a well-established branding strategy practiced by polluting mobilities—exposed more recently by the climate-activist group Extinction Rebellion’s ongoing protests against BP’s sponsorship of the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Want to read more? Pick up a copy of the Automania catalogue.
Automania, organized by Juliet Kinchin, former Curator, Paul Galloway, Collection Specialist, and Andrew Gardner, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, is on view at MoMA through January 2, 2022.
 The Museum of Modern Art, New York, press release no. 510823-46, August 23, 1951.
 Press clipping, “Modern Art in Your Garage,” September 6, 1951, MoMA Archives, The Museum of Modern Art Exhibition Records (MoMA Exhs.).
 Aline B. Louchheim, “Automobiles as Art,” The New York Times, September 2, 1951.
 John Wheelock Freeman, “What Is Good Design?,” Auto Sport Review, July 1952, 50.
 Philip Johnson, quoted in Bert Pierce, “Auto as Art Work Is Museum Exhibit,” The New York Times, August 29, 1951.
 Clyde L. King, foreword to Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 116, no. 1 (November 1924): vii.
 Paul Rohrbach, quoted in Walter Gropius Amerikareise 1928, ed. Gerda Breuer and Annemarie Jaeggi (Berlin: Bauhaus-Archiv, 2008).
 Louchheim, “The Automobile in Modern Art,” The New York Times, September 20, 1953.
 Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (London: Methuen & Co., 1908), 45.
 Ise Gropius, “Autofahren in New York” (unpublished manuscript, 1929), Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin.