New Exhibit Revisits Andy Warhol’s Mercedes-Benz Collaboration
“Andy Warhol: Cars” is on display now at the Petersen Automotive Museum
Over the course of his long career in art, Andy Warhol drew inspiration from a number of now-iconic images, from the face of Marilyn Monroe to a humble box of soap. But Warhol also had a penchant for cars — largely as a muse, but also a connoisseur, despite never having learned to drive. What happens, then, when you juxtapose Warhol’s paintings of cars with some of the vehicles that inspired those works?
Andy Warhol: Cars — Works From The Mercedes-Benz Art Collection, a new exhibit at Los Angeles’s Petersen Automotive Museum, puts that side of Warhol into the spotlight. It’s slated to run through January 23 of next year.
“Although our exhibits are always centered on automobiles, we’re always looking for intersections and overlaps with other aspects of human culture (art, cinema, architecture, fashion, etc.),” Bryan Stevens, the Petersen Automotive Museum’s Director of Exhibitions told InsideHook.
“From the moment our curatorial team first learned of the existence of Warhol’s Cars series, we’ve had it at the top of our list of subjects to pursue,” he added. “When discussions with Mercedes-Benz revealed a genuine possibility of the collection coming our way, we jumped at the opportunity.”
Cars was the series Warhol was working on at the time of his death. Mercedes-Benz had commissioned the project to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the automobile, and Warhol had planned to feature 20 vehicles overall. In the end, only a fraction of that was completed — 36 paintings and 13 drawings, which covered eight of the vehicles selected.
Among the vehicles referenced by Warhol in his work were 1937 Mercedes-Benz W125, A W196 from 1954 and a 1970 C111-II; a total of five Mercedes-Benz vehicles that inspired Warhol’s work are on display. Cars also features Warhol’s own 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. Between vintage cars and works of art, the museum’s staff had several logistical challenges.
As Stevens explained, they faced a number of increasingly-familiar issues when bringing the show together. “Numerous factors — especially COVID and the war in Ukraine — have created a chaotic, unpredictable shipping situation worldwide,” he explained. “Costs fluctuate wildly every day and the availability of ships and flights are always in question. Obviously, it all worked out, but there were tense moments when it seemed the exhibit just might not come together as hoped.”
Stevens found himself engaged by Warhol’s own history as he worked on the show. “It’s so easy to deify people of his stature in your mind until you really delve into their biographies,” he said. “The more you learn, the more human and relatable they become.”
Cars will also prominently feature another interesting category: the way in which fine art and automotive culture can come together. Mercedes-Benz’s Warhol commission is one aspect of this, as is BMW’s Art Car program. For Stevens, this overlap seems to be on the rise.
“There’s no question this overlap has a powerful effect,” he said. “In recent years, automotive exhibitions held at prominent art museums around the United States have proven to be some of the best-attended shows in those institutions’ histories. And other museums are taking notice: MoMA recently highlighted the automobile (for at least the third time), as did the V&A in London. And the Guggenheim in Bilbao is doing so right now.”
Stevens brought up a few reasons as to why this might be the case. “Perhaps the automobile shatters barriers of relatability and relevance that might prevent some from otherwise appreciating art, and perhaps art elevates the automobile to the level of consequential cultural artifact in the minds of those who might otherwise see it as a mere appliance,” he said. “Another theory: people are simply drawn to things that unexpectedly transcend traditional barriers or cultural silos.”
Whether you’re a Warhol buff or just find the idea of looking at a few rare Mercedes-Benz models irresistible, there’s a lot to admire in this new exhibit. And if you happen to enjoy insight into the creative process along with examples of great automotive design, it’s that much more memorable.
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