“Speed Sculpture”

Pomona College Museum of Art

Six motorcycles, one turbine dragster, two chrome-plated sculptures by David Gray and three works by Billy Al Bengston—a 1967 Dento and two carburetor paintings from 1961—are on display at the Pomona College Art Gallery under the title “Speed Sculpture.” Bengston, who is an expert on motorcycles, selected the pieces for this display, basing his choices on sheerly pragmatic criteria and making no claims that they are indeed works of art, either by virtue of his having chosen them or of any intrinsic qualities. For instance, a Honda Superhawk is included as an example of a safe, multi-purpose machine; the Honda CB93 was made specifically for production road racing in the U.S.; the Triumph Metisse, a stock machine combining British and Italian parts, is a superior unmodified road racer (though presented in lieu of a Harley model which is even better, but could not be obtained); the Suzuki scrambler is designed more for pleasure sport than for serious competition; the Crocker Speedway, vintage 1933, has a mainly historical interest; and the classic, inimitable, BSA Gold Star, last produced in 1964, is the dirt-tracker par excellence. This last model is not only the expert’s favorite but the amateur’s, looking as straightforward, tough and effective as it is, and consequently moving one to admiration in the same way that one is moved by certain classic airplanes. The turbine dragster is a formidable instrument, at least 20 feet long, of red, white and blue lacquered aluminum, set low to the ground on wide slicks at the rear and smaller spoked wheels in front. This machine exudes an aura of speed cultism that makes the motorcycles look innocent by comparison.

All this is not as silly as it may sound, for the fact is that regardless of technicalities, many of the pieces here are a great deal more interesting than much of the pseudo-mechanistic art that is being turned out these days. But in the end, there are no grounds on which one can argue that motorcycles or dragsters are works of art, unless it were to stretch the Duchampian gesture to ridiculous proportions. Consequently, one’s judgments about the qualitative virtues of one motorcycle over another can only be grounded in certain assumptions which have, at best, indirectly to do with the esthetics of fine art. Bengston’s avoidance of “fetishistic” machines (i.e. those which are made not just to serve well but to look decorative, or bizarre, or expensive) in favor of functional ones reflects an admittedly special but essentially correct bias, and it is with this assumption that functional design—is better than nonfunctional design that we must operate in evaluating the present exhibition. From this point of view, it is an undeniably successful project.

As for the carburetor paintings and Gray’s tubular chrome-plated sculptures, though they are placed in juxtaposition with the objects which inspired them, they necessarily remain in an irreconcilably separate realm, though they are perhaps heightened or better understood by the proximity of their prototypes. But even this is uncertain; one can only say that the presentation as a whole evokes an aura which, for whatever reason, is intensely compelling.

Jane Livingston