Take a Look at the BMW Art Cars

Do you ever ask yourself, “If I could find a BMW dealer near me, I’d choose one of the most flamboyant colors they have?” Personalization and customization is part of a discerning car owner’s DNA, driving their ability to say that no one else has that particular car.

That’s been the vision behind the BMW Art Cars, 19 different BMW models displaying unique paint jobs by famous artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, and other well-known contemporary artists. Long a major benefactor of the arts, BMW believes the arts should be accessible to everyone. The brand has backed contemporary music in museums and has thrown its support to two major museum partnerships: the Tate in London and the Guggenheim in New York.

Supporting the arts has become a labor of love between the premium German auto manufacturer, the artist, and the adoring public. BMW believes its Art Cars are rolling sculptures, a part of other artistic work that encompasses mobility as its subject. BMW is thrilled that the art world is fascinated with the unique pieces, which combine art, technology, engineering, and design.

Who Gets Chosen?

With so many interesting and prominent artists in the world, how does BMW select the artist for its Art Car each year? Management at BMW leaves it all up to an independent international panel of renowned museum directors and curators.

Once the artist has been chosen, BMW gives him or her complete creative freedom, excluding anything offensive such as pornography, racism or blasphemy. What is left up to BMW is the choice of the vehicle.

The Big Red Dot

The latest BMW dressed by an artist is car No. 19. It paraded around the track at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. It certainly stands out. With a big red dot on its roof, car No. 19 is clearly the work of John Baldessari, an 85-year-old conceptual artist who has gained the reputation as the father of modern conceptual art. His canvas was a BMW RLL M6 GTLM.

Baldessari conceived of the design from his own well-known mixed-media pieces in which colored dots are placed over portions of black-and-white photographs. The only two constraints placed on Baldessari were that the design had to comply with racing regulations and it could not add weight to the vehicle.

Baldessari seems to have enjoyed the commission, adding some humor to his comments. With the giant red dot decorating the top of the vehicle, he says he always knows where the car is during the race. With a chuckle, he also insists he can’t drive the racecar since he’s tall.

But he took the unique assignment quite seriously when deciding how to place his artwork on this one-of-a-kind metal canvas. Baldessari wanted to ensure that the crowd still knew it was a car; in fact he placed a photograph of the car on one side of it. At Daytona, his car placed eighth. It’s now joined the rest of the collection on the museum circuit.


How Did This All Begin?

It all began in 1975 with French racing-car driver Hervé Poulain, who blended together his love of racing cars with his passion for art. Together with his band of famous artist friends, Poulain received a promised from BMW: if you join our organization, we’ll allow our cars to be decorated by your friends. From this initial promise, the first BMW Art Car was created by American artist Alexander Calder on a BMW 3.0 CSL. Was it the bright red, yellow, white, and sky blue colors Calder used that delighted so many people? No matter the reason it was a huge hit with the public. Later that year, Poulain raced the Calder car in the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race.

Since they debuted, the BMW Art Cars have become a prestigious sensation, prompting art museum exhibits, and special races. Each artist used his or her wildly creative imagination incorporating color, form, and their own unique thought on speed, gesture, and matter to design a BMW vehicle with their own brushstrokes.

To honor BMW’s 100th anniversary, a special 2016 exhibit was shown at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. Not only was the first Calder car on display, but an airbrushed 1990 BMW 535i by Matazo Kayama joined it.

Other dazzling displays were cars created by Jeff Koons and David Hockney. After Calder, Frank Stella, a racing fan, created Car No. 2, followed by Robert Rauschenberg’s 635CSi. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jenny Holzer soon joined their ranks. The first North American tour of the cars was held in 2009 beginning at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was followed by a stop in New York City at Grand Central Terminal. Soon they traveled to international destinations in Mexico and in July 2012 to London’s Institute of Contemporary Art.

If you miss an exhibition or race here in the U.S. you can visit the complete collection that is permanently housed at the BMW Museum in Munich.

Slow Evolution

Since it was first established, the BMW Art Car project has slowly evolved. In the beginning, the painted cars were actually raced. Since then, the Art Cars have become more prestigious and are used to advertise BMW’s commitment to the arts. Their value is estimated in the multi-million dollar range due to their historical value created by these renowned artists of these one-of-a-kind custom vehicles.

Like paintings in a fine museum, these BMW Art Cars go through a process called mummification to protect them from rust and decay. The process strips their engines of invasive fluids. Additional steps are taken as well. Their handlers have to ensure that they are displayed in a certain manner like a piece of art in a museum with a certain amount of distance from the public and 24-hour security around the cars. To get the cars from one museum or event to another, they are flown from Germany in special aluminum car containers.

So the next time you visit a BMW dealership in your neighborhood, take time to really enjoy the craftsmanship and design of your own.