New York

“Different Roads”

The exclusive association of MoMA’s history with the European-centered high modernism of Picasso and Mondrian is in need of serious revision. Alfred Barr, the museum’s first director, conceived of breaking the institution into separate departments out of a desire to put the so-called minor arts of photography, film, and industrial design on an equal footing with painting and sculpture. While Barr did not agree with Duchamp’s dismissive statement that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges,” he did complain in 1940 of “the tendency of the public to identify art with painting and sculpture,” while claiming that “no other museum in the country has done as much to further the interest of American photography, American films, American architecture and American industrial design.” The focus on applied and industrial arts led the museum to begin staging design exhibitions in 1933, and in the ensuing years it offered such groundbreaking shows as “Machine Art,” as well as displays like “Useful Household Objects Under Five Dollars,” that argued that good design need not be reserved for the carriage trade. “Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century” continued this legacy by showcasing automotive design as a means to meet such pressing issues as reduced pollution, increased safety, and affordability.

The eight cars in the museum’s garden were displayed like sculpture, arranged in a grid that rhymed with the layout of the garden as a whole. They were divided conceptually by curator Christopher Mount into autos with new types of power plants (electric motors, hybrid engines, etc.) and those featuring alternative materials, structures, and forms. It is interesting that most of these vehicles have been designed for the entry-level market, showing that the combination of overcrowding, expensive fuel (outside the US), and government regulation is producing innovation from the bottom up.

Among those with new power plants, some innovations are clearly visible to the layman’s eye, while others are only evident to those well-versed in what is under the hood. The General Motors EV1, the first electric car in large-scale production in the US, is extremely stylish. Moving the rear wheels nine inches closer together than the front creates a teardrop shape, enhanced by rear wheel covers and a flat-bottomed undercarriage, all features that help make the EV1 the most aerodynamic— “slippery” in trade lingo—car in production. The Toyota Prius, on the other hand, looks unremarkable but has a computer that seamlessly switches between a four-cylinder gas engine and an electric motor. The car attains its highest fuel efficiency in stop-and-go city traffic, using energy generated by braking to power the electric motor.

The Smart Car, a collaboration between Swatch and DaimlerChrysler, is a good example of new materials and forms reinvigorating an established type. The ultimate city car, it is designed to fit into a parking space half the size of an ordinary one. At the same time the vehicle’s visible space frame and the positioning of the mechanical parts underneath its passenger compartment assure passenger safety. Like its Swatch cousins, the Smart Car looks like something you could trade with your friends, an impression reinforced by the fact that if you tire of the exterior, the multicolored body panels can be replaced by a technician in two hours. The Swatch connection is indicative of what separates this generation of small cars from the econoboxes of the past. As Mount says, “Automobiles that appear hair-shirt or underpowered . . . don’t inspire the kind of yearnings that prompt consumers to buy.” And as this statement suggests, all this innovation isn’t altruistic. The production of more efficient and affordable automobiles proceeds by the corporate logic that everyone would be happier if only they were a car owner, ignoring the fact that the replacement of the private car with forms of public transportation might be the best solution for the new century. But that would be the subject for another show.

Andrew Perchuk