Los Angeles

“Automobile and Culture”

In 1922 the veristic painter Georg Scholz produced a meticulously acerbic lithograph entitled Daily Newspaper. The work is typical of contemporary partisan criticism, its point made by opposing two already shopworn stereotypes: the worker—downtrodden, physically dejected, and bone lean—and the plutocrat, top hatted of course, predictably porcine, and grinning malevolently. Like virtually every other of the nearly 200 paintings, photographs, sculptures, posters, drawings, and prints in this nearly monumental exhibition, Scholz’s piece illustrates an aspect of the cultural symbolism of the automobile, for the workers walk—rather, they trudge—but the capitalist is driven in the back of an open touring car. Only half visible and rendered in minimal detail, the image of the automobile is a crucial icon; pointed and heavy with polemic significance, it is a remarkably barometric sociopolitical referent. And that, italicized by 30 impeccably chosen automobiles, is the idea at the heart of the show.

Curated by Walter Hopps and organized under the aegis of the museum’s Founding Director, Pontus Hulten, “Automobile and Culture” was at once an enormous popular success and pettishly controversial. While it fell painfully short of Hopps’ original vision of several times as many pieces (and a budget of a million dollars), the exhibition was more than merely another crème à la glace contribution to Los Angeles’ Olympic Arts Festival extravaganza, for its organization was thoughtful and imaginative; the selections were provocative, sometimes stunning, and the range, although unevenly developed, did suggest the incredibly various ways in which the car has become one of the most pervasively ambiguous images of our time. The space—spare, cavernous, darkly theatrical, and a bit labyrinthine—was divided into seven thematic sections generally corresponding to the decades of the 20th century. Thus such titles as “Reality and Beyond the Real,” “Cultural Explosion,” and “First Visions” were loose attempts to characterize the identity of the era they represented, and presumably the works included in each section were intended to be exemplary. Such works as Louis Lozowick’s Doorway into Street, 1930, Edward Hopper’s Jo in Wyoming, 1946, and Louis Guglielmi’s Terror in Brooklyn, 1941, seemed to have been included because of the incidental role of their imagery, while such otherwise dissimilar artists as Vija Celmins, the Ant Farm group, Giorgio de Chirico, Les Krims, and Robert Longo were all represented by pieces in which the automobile, or some aspect of its significance, is central. But the show was anything but claustrophobically cohesive or thematically oppressive; the spectrum of insistently idiosyncratic stylistic enunciation was simply far too rich. And it is style, after all, that provides the punch when it comes, as it did here in Ed Ruscha’s Cheesemold Standard with Olive, 1969, Arthur Dove’s Long Island, 1925, or, perhaps the sleeper of the show, Kenneth Price’s L.A. Shunga Don’t Think About Her When You’re Trying to Drive, 1981. Off-the-wall and forgotten pieces surprised; the show also held by-now standard works by Ed Kienholz, Claes Oldenburg, and such, and a solid collection of photographs.

That the Bugatti, the Phantom Corsair, the customized ’51 Merc convertible, and the 300 SL should be exhibited with Don Potts’ My First Car, 1966–70, and, moreover, with Scott Prescott’s awesome Ghetto Blaster, 1982, is perhaps testimony to the assertion that “Walter Hopps is an artist who makes shows,” but despite the pleasure one got from its visual razzle-dazzle, “Automobile and Culture” remained something of an oversimplified teaser. Of course an exhibition made up of work in which “the automobile figures predominantly” is bound to be esthetically uneven; of course its categories are going to be, let’s say, convenient; and of course a lot will be missing, for what, short of a show entitled “Art and Life,” could be at once more presumptuous and more conceptually open-ended than “the automobile and culture”? The real weight of the show derived from its catalogue, a handsome, 319-page, sumptuously illustrated coffee-table art book offering excellent historical documentation and a text, principally by Gerald Silk, with more specialized discussions by Henry Flood Robert, Jr., Strother MacMinn, and Angelo Tito Anselmi, which really does address the issues of the automobile and culture. The exhibition itself failed to truly focus those issues; its scope was exciting but vague. More space should have been given to the Futurists; some space should have been given to the designers. The entire wandering matrix of auto imagery in the popular media was missing—the comics, for instance, and the immensely important imagery of the automobile in advertising. Finally, one wished for more cars.

John Brumfield