The Art Car Museum Is Auto Madness of the Best Kind and Part of a Long Tradition

It’s a private institution dedicated to contemporary art, but not just any art; it features exhibition space for local, national, and international artists who create art cars.
Art Car Museum and Fruitmobile by Jackie Harris 14 photos
Photo: The Art Car Museum
Alexander Calder BMW“Ayate Car,” 1997, by Betsabeé RomeroThe Art Car Museum“Derby Racer,” Art Car by Larry Fuente.“EarthRover1,” by Dion LaurentJoel Brown's AnglerfishKeith Haring BMW Art CarMarcel Wanders VW Beetle-based AntelopeThe Art Car Museum“Rex Rabbit,” Art car by Larry Fuente“Rosebud,” by Amber EagleThe Art Car MuseumThe Art Car Museum Exhibit
According to artist and creator Ann Harithas, Art Car Museum (or the Garage Mahal as it’s known to many) opened in February 1998, and it was founded as a not-for-profit arts organization.

Harithas says the museum’s goal is “to encourage the public’s awareness of the cultural, political, economic and personal dimensions of art.” Along with James Harithas, who is currently Director of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art in Houston, Texas, the pair have collected machines of the art car variety and what they say is a celebration of the “process of trans­forming the automobile into a potent new personal symbol.”

An art car is a motor-driven vehicle that a car artist has altered in such a way as to suit their own aesthetic. To make it happen, the artist either utilizes materi­als to create a piece that conveys new meaning through design, mechanical or structural changes, renova­tion via the addition of new images, symbols, or collage elements.

Alexander Calder BMW
Photo: BMW
These cars are meant to express political, social, personal or purely decorative objectives. All the art cars in the collection are "subversive" pieces that transform a factory-made commodity into a personal statement or expression.

They say the art car is "revolutionary in the sense that it reclaims the vehicle for the individual and proclaims independence and diversity, which is in sharp contrast to the increasingly conventional and impersonal automobiles and trucks which are currently being produced."

While what is now known as the art car phe­nomenon is relatively recent and has appeared roughly in the last fifteen years, the impulse to create them stretches far back in time and across every continent.

A fast survey of the Philippines, Cuba, Mexico, and Pakistan reveals an inclination for artists and owners to create colorful deco­ration, which can invoke gods and various political messages. The art car concept in the United States is, at least in general, a secular pursuit that takes inspiration from hot-rods, race cars, classic machines, low-riders, and various examples of hippie vans.

Marcel Wanders VW Beetle\-based Antelope
Photo: Marcel Wanders
Harithas says the hippie vans of the 1960s and early 1970s demonstrated an expression of dissent with their use of peace and anti-war symbols.

The Art Car Museum found its conceptual origins in the Collision Show curated by Ann Harithas at the Lawndale Art Center in 1984. There, attendees first saw Larry Fuente's "Mad Cad" art car, and since then, the car has been featured in museums and cultural institutions across the country.

Some other famous art cars include Joel Brown's Anglerfish, Sonia Delaunay's Matra 530, Alexander Calder's BMW 3.0 CSL, the' VW Beetle-based Antelope by Marcel Wanders, Banksy's Triumph GT6 MkIII, and Damien Hirst's Audi A1.

One notable inclusion in the genre came from artist Keith Haring. Haring applied his signature graphic style to a red BMW Z1 for the Hans Mayer Gallery in Düsseldorf back in 1987. That car is now part of a private collection.

The Art Car Museum Exhibit
Photo: The Art Car Museum
That car was not officially a part of the BMW Art Car Project. The project was envisioned by French racecar driver and auctioneer Hervé Poulain. Poulain wanted to invite an artist to create a canvas on an automobile, and in 1975, he contacted the famous American artist - who also happened to be a friend - Alexander Calder to paint the first BMW Art Car. Since that first entry in the genre, other renowned artists including, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol have all created their versions of BMW Art Cars.

Harithas has continued to expand the definition of art cars, and she says the aesthetic of the Art Car Museum is an amalgam of the traditions of fine, folk, and public art. The Art Car Museum regularly features imaginative and elaborately constructed vehicles from low riders to various other mobile contraptions and revolving exhibitions of art.

Often considered the ‘Art Car Capital’, Houston is home to the largest number of art cars found in any city, and the museum’s distinctive scrap metal and chrome exterior was created by car artist David Best.
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