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    The Art Car at Le Mans
by Walter Robinson
Jenny Holzer's BMW design
Holzer's Art Car in action
Jenny Holzer in the BMW hospitality tent
Signing the car
Art Car maxims
Alexander Calder's 1975 Art Car
Viewing Le Mans.
The winning BMW enters the pit
BMW driver Tom Kristensen
BMW hospitality
Roy Lichtenstein's 1977 Art Car
Andy Warhol's Art Car, 1979
A. R. Penck, 1991
David Hockney's Art Car, 1995
Frank Stella, 1976
Art must be lucky for BMW.

This year the luxury auto maker produced a unique object -- Jenny Holzer's Art Car, a BMW V12 LMR sports car painted with reflective silver maxims by the world-famous "critical poet," as BMW Magazine referred to her.

And this year BMW won Le Mans, the grueling 24-hour endurance race in the south of France, held on June 11-12. Holzer's car didn't participate in the race -- as a work of art, it is considered far too valuable to risk in competition!

But one of BMW's two entries, number 15, driven by Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini and Joachim Winkelhock, crossed the finish just a single circuit ahead of the Toyota GT-One driven by Ukyo Katayama.

The showing for BMW was much better than last year, when both BMW cars had to retire with mechanical problems only a few hours into the race. It should be noted, though perhaps it is only a coincidence, that BMW produced no Art Car in 1998.

More than 60 cars competed in Le Mans this year, with only 25 surviving to the triumphant finish. One of the more dramatic moments came early in the race, when a Mercedes CLR -- one of the favorites -- went airborne, somersaulting off the track (the driver was miraculously unhurt).

Movie fans were also watching number 54, a gold and blue Chrysler Viper driven by Paul Belmondo, son of the French movie star Jean-Paul Belmondo. American manufacturers inexplicably keep a low profile at Le Mans, and don't use the race in their U.S. marketing, but the Viper consistently overpowered the Porsche, its only competition in the street-legal class.

Will BMW produce an Art Car for 2000? It seems unlikely, says Jutta Quade, who runs the Art Car program for BMW. "A lot depends on the state of contemporary art," she told "The match has to be perfect."

The Holzer car is the 15th acquisition for BMW's Art Car collection, which was founded in 1975 when legendary art auctioneer and race car driver Hervé Poulain asked his friend Alexander Calder to design a color scheme for his BMW 3.0CSL. The Calder car was driven in the 1975 Le Mans race by Poulain, the American Sam Posey and the Frenchman Jean Guichet. After seven hours, Calder's BMW retired with a damaged drive shaft and has been an art exhibit ever since.

Both the Holzer and Calder cars were on view in the BMW booth at Le Mans Village. Holzer attended the event -- her first Le Mans, though her father was a car dealer -- and during a low-key ceremony officially signed her Art Car on its dashboard. At that time she also affixed the final maxim on the back of the driver's seat, a cloth patch reading "What urge will save us now that sex won't." This suggestive slogan is visible only when the car is empty.

Holzer's abstract conceptual-art slogans take on new meanings once removed from their esthetic ivory tower and extended out into the real world. Nowhere was this clash and meld of signifiers more evident than in the Art Car enterprise. Holzer's maxims seem custom-made for Le Mans. The link of auto racing with sexual drive could hardly be better said, for instance, than in the driver's-seat slogan quoted above.

Similarly, the two maxims on the rear airfoil, "Monomania is a prerequisite of success" and "Lack of charisma can be fatal," seem to describe to a T requirements for both a successful race and a successful career in the contemporary culture industry.

"Protect me from what I want" is the largest slogan, and stretches across the entire top of the chassis. Here the Holzer maxim becomes a kind of prayer -- a sentiment that haunts cultural representations of Le Mans and racing in general. Race fans will remember the 1971 Steve McQueen movie, Le Mans, whose romantic narrative centered on the fear of wives and girlfriends that their men would die in the race, which was clearly portrayed as a masculine monomania.

In the intervening quarter century, the gender coding of car racing has become more conscious, if hardly less male-dominated. Women see the car as masculine, arguably, while the drivers see it as feminine. And Holzer's texts, which are actually done in light-reflecting metal foil and contoured with phosphorescent paint, speak with many voices.

Needless to say, the semiotics of motorsports is a common theme in Art Car designs. Roy Lichtenstein, describing the thinking that went into his 1977 design for a BMW 320i, said "I wanted to use painted lines as a road, pointing the way for the car. The design also shows the scenery as it passes by. Even the sky and sunlight are to be seen." Lichtenstein said his design mirrors "all the things a car experiences."

The car must have found it rather agreeable. Driven by Poulain and the Frechman Marcel Mignot, Lichtenstein's BMW finished ninth overall and first in its class. The car is now included in the Lichtenstein show currently at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As is to be expected, the Art Cars are frequently included in art exhibitions. In 1986, Robert Rauschenberg decorated a BMW 635 CSI with black-and-white images of a Bronzino portrait, an Ingres odalisque, swamp grasses and trees (to indicate environmental consciousness). Its hub caps were enameled with designs from antique plates. The car was included in the artist's Guggenheim Museum retrospective, and was shown at the museum's SoHo branch, since it wouldn't fit through the doors of the Frank Lloyd Wright building uptown.

Of all the designers of BMW Art Cars, only Andy Warhol took up the brush and painted his car by hand (everyone else worked on scale models). "I adore the car," he said. "It's much better than a work of art." The year was 1979 and Warhol covered the racer with an abstract design in red, green, yellow and blue, drawing linear accents in the wet paint with the back end of the brush. Perhaps Warhol's most articulated "abstraction," the car was driven in the 1979 Le Mans and finished sixth overall and second in its class.

Among the other celebrated Art Car designers is Frank Stella, himself a racing aficionado (who has made the gossip columns for his acquisition of speeding tickets). He did the 1976 version. His black-and-white design covered the car with a graph-paper-like grid and his famed protractor shapes, which the artist cautioned should be interpreted only "as agreeable decoration."

A.R. Penck's Art Car, designed in 1991, features the German Neo-Expressionist's trademark runes -- depicting a lion, an alligator, snakes and stick figures, among other things -- on a red BMW Z1 convertible. Penck's Art Car was included in Documenta 9 in Kassel in 1992.

David Hockey's 1995 design, in the British artist's neo-Cubist style, featured an imaginary X-ray version of the car's innards, including everything from engine manifolds painted on the hood to a hound-dog painted on the rear driver's side door, appearing to stand in the back seat. Other artists who have done Art Cars include Sandro Chia (1992), the native Australian artist Michael Jagamara Nelson (1989) and the South African Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu (1991).

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.