NEW YORK CITY — Jeff Koons has been called "arguably America's most important living contemporary artist." Cretin that I am, when given a chance to ask him a question at the BMW art car event, I asked, “So what kind of car do you drive?” He’s an urban-looking guy; I got the impression he doesn’t drive a lot. Koons said, predictably, “A BMW. But my daughter mostly drives it. I’m getting a ... what is it?” He turned to an aide for confirmation. “A 750i?”
He’d better drive a BMW. Koons has been chosen — joining such august company as Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol — to decorate the 17th BMW Art Car, which following a long tradition will run this June 12-13 at the historic (since 1923) 24 Hours of Le Mans race (and will also hit the art show circuit).
Koons, who helped make a name for himself with explicit images featuring his Italian porn star wife (who later sued him), is the kind of artist Europeans like — they go for the edgy stuff. For BMW, Koons (who was looking respectable in a dark suit) has created a vivid design of colorful parallel stripes for the car, but he has not painted it yet. (The design looks like the photo below.)
In New York, the M3 GT2 coupe sat resplendent in white, and the artist shoehorned himself into the one seat for the cameras — in effect, merging with his canvas. Koons said he’d gone onto the Internet and looked at pictures of cars in motion, as well as art cars of the past. He said the idea of his bold neon lines was to capture the blurry feel of a racer at speed, “you know, that kind of energy.” Might I add that Captain Beefheart was after the same feel when he sang, “The moon was a drip on a dark hood”?
BMW won outright at Le Mans in 1999, though the winning V-12 LMR (one of three) was not the art car. The Koons racer will be one of two to take the field in the GT2 class this year. “Usually, when a car looks good, it goes good,” said driver Andy Priaulx, who’ll be piloting at Le Mans.
BMW considers its rolling canvases to be popular art, which may be why I saw them displayed in Grand Central Station last year. That concept probably influences the choice of artists, too — I saw a cartoony Lichtenstein work displayed on a subway billboard near the Times Square Shuttle. After soup cans, a BMW seemed the logical next step for Andy Warhol. He painted a 470-horsepower racing version of the gorgeous M1 in 1979.
Perhaps Warhol influenced Koons, who mirrors the late Factory owner in his ability to catch the zeitgeist. “I tried to portray speed pictorially,” Warhol said of his car. “If a car is moving really quickly, all the lines and colors become blurred.”
American artist Jenny Holzer painted the slogan, “Monomania is a pre-requisite for success” on the tail of her 12-cylinder BMW Art Car in 1999, BMW’s winning year. That would seem to be a good motto not only for racing drivers but for ambitiously driven artists, too.
Until Koon's finishes his car, here are a few to enjoy, including work by Warhol (from top), Robert Rauschenberg and Olafur Eliasson.