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American Car Culture as Expressed Through Art

  • Holly Andres - Anna’s Birthday Party
  • Claes Oldenburg - Profile Airflow
  • Kerry James Marshall - 7am Sunday Morning
July 26, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

Some of the first attempts of constructing a prototype of a car happened in the late 17th century, and the primitive version of the engine as we know it today was produced by the German designer Karl Benz in the 1880s. As time passed, the system was becoming more and more refined and the possible speed higher, alongside the impressive designs of every possible aspect of the machine.

In the United States, the automobile industry blossomed throughout the 1950s during the era recognized in historical terms as the affluent society characterized by massive industrialization, economic growth in the private sector, and the domination of high-end consumerism. The car became a necessity due to a vast network of roads spreading across the cities and the country in general.

Such a situation surely reflected on arts as well: artists started capturing the endless cityscapes saturated with cars which became a paradigm of social progress, freedom, and independence. The iconic status of this four-wheel machine reveals an array of aesthetic, environmental, social and industrial implications.

The current exhibition titled Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture explores all of the mentioned and other aspects of a popular visual symbol of the American culture by featuring painting, sculpture, photography, prints, and drawings from the collection of The Toledo Museum of Art.

Stuart Davis - Landscape with Garage Lights
Stuart Davis – Landscape with Garage Lights. Oil on canvas, 1931–32. 32 x 41 7/8 in. (81.2 x 106.4). Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York: Marion Stratton Gould Fund. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

The Context

The project curated by Robin Reisenfeld, Ph.D., TMA’s works on paper curator, is practically the first exhibition in the States to historically map artists inspired by American car culture with a special focus on the Midwest region. The Midwest’s identity rotates around the car culture, as a significant portion of Toledo’s economy was based on the automotive industry since the beginning of the 20th century.

Helen Levitt - New York City
Helen Levitt – New York City (Spider Girl). Chromogenic color print, 1980. 12 1/4 × 18 in. (31.1 × 45.7 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Frederick B. and Kate L. Shoemaker Fund, the Carl B. Spitzer Fund, and the Louise and Stanley Levison Fund, 2018.31. © The Estate of Helen Levitt

The Installment

The exhibition consists of four thematic sections which show various explorations of the artists (each generation faced the changes in design, speed, and functionality) concerning the emergence of car culture, the on-the-road experience as well as environmental and psychological consequences of the automobiles.

The works of the American Scene artists and Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers such as Walker Evans or Margaret Bourke-White are contrasted with the ones made by to Pop masters and photorealists such as Jim Dine and James Rosenquist, as well as with paintings and installations by more contemporary artists John Chamberlain, Judy Chicago, and Kerry James Marshall. Also on display are the works of performance artist and automotive designer Liz Cohen, which will be on view together with photography, early video and works on paper by Robert Frank, Catherine Opie, Gordon Parks, and Meridel Rubenstein, to mention a few.

Edward Burtynsky - Oxford Tire Pile
Edward Burtynsky – Oxford Tire Pile #8. Chromogenic color print, 1999. 27 x 34 in. (68.6 x 86.4 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds given in memory of Larry Thompson by his children and grandchildren, 2018. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis

Life Is a Highway at Toledo Museum of Art

An illustrated catalog consisting of two essays (by curator Robin Reisenfeld and by guest author Eleanor Heartney) accompanies the exhibition alongside public programming.

Reisenfeld expressed his excitement regarding the show:

The rich spectrum of artists and media in the exhibition represents the intensity of our experiences with automobiles over time and our evolving relationship to it as a symbol of social change. As an immersive treatment of the visual culture of automobiles, this display ensures that there will be something for everyone to discover and enjoy in the galleries.

Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture is on display at The Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio until 15 September 2019.

Featured image: Holly Andres – Anna’s Birthday Party #3. Chromogenic dye coupler print, 2010. 20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm). © Holly Andres Image courtesy of the artist; Claes Oldenburg – Profile Airflow. Cast polyurethane relief over two-color lithograph, 1969. 33 1/4 x 65 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (84.5 x 166.4 x 9.5 cm). Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI; Museum purchase. © 1969 Claes Oldenburg; Kerry James Marshall – 7am Sunday Morning. Acrylic on canvas banner, 2003. 120 x 216 in. (304.8 x 548.6 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange, 2003.16. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. All images courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.