Jeff Koons and the BMW Art Car Collection


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 3 2015)

Jeff Koons’ works break all records. Everyone knows his blank polarised plastics in bright colours, for example the colourful bunch of flowers ‘Tulips’, the porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson with his monkey Bubbles or ‘Puppy’, the 12-metre sculpture planted with flowers. He has been the absolute king of art since his ‘Balloon Dog’ was auctioned for more than 43 million euros at Christie’s two years ago, and counts as the most expensive living artist in the world. 

Koons uses examples from the consume culture and alienates or imitates them. His works of art are always ironic in one way or another, they polarise and skilfully find a balance between kitsch and art. The style and artists who have influenced him are diverse. They range from rococo to surrealism, pop art and conceptual art. The 60-year old honours artists such as Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Roy Lichtenstein. A few of them rediscover themselves in a communal collection of art which is unique and is celebrating its 40-year jubilee – the BMW Art Cars. Many of the biggest artists of the 20th century have been inspired by the rush of speed, mobility and the car as a modern sculpture since 1975 and have designed a BMW vehicle as a work of art – often a racing car which was launched at the legendary 24-hour race of Le Mans.

 “I would like to design such a car”, said Jeff Koons once in an interview. “I am a passionate driver who grew up in an industrial town in Pennsylvania. At 16 we all had a driving licence. There was nothing far and wide apart from fields and forests.” In 2010, when his ‘Hanging Heart’ received the price of 20 million dollars at an auction, the cooperation between Koons and the car manufacturer was perfect. “For me, the idea of working on a BMW Art Car had always been an honour. I am looking forward to continuing a tradition which great artists such as Calder, Lichtenstein, Stella and Warhol once established”, he said at the world premiere of his vehicle. “Now I am also part of this pantheon.”

He designed a BMW M3 GT2 racing car, which was launched at the 24-hour race in Le Mans. “These racing cars are like life, they are bursting with strength and have enormous energy. You can engage yourself, build on it and be one with the energy. There is a lot of power under the hood and my ideas should merge with this. It’s all about completely opening yourself up to it”, Jeff Koons described his vision.

Bono, singer of the band U2 and close acquaintance of the artist gave another incentive for a spectacular vehicle. In a contribution for the New York Times, he requested the “return to the automobile as a sexual object” from Barack Obama, and suggested Jeff Koons as the designer, so that people could finally fall in love with cars again.

Dr. Thomas Girst, Head of Cultural Commitment for the BMW Group, tells us how the unique art collection came about and how the most recent Art Car of the collection to date, the M3 GT2 by Jeff Koons, was realised.

Alexander Calder created the first BMW Art Car in 1975. How did it come about, who came up with the idea of creating the car as a work of art?

Thomas Girst: The special thing about the history of Art Cars is that it’s really about the passion of two men for car racing as well as for contemporary art. Hervé Poulain, the great racing driver and still a successful auctioneer for contemporary art today, approached the then BMW Motor sports Director Jochen Neerpasch and wanted to be part of the BMW fleet at the 24-hour race in Le Mans. He wanted to do this with the idea that you allowed a car to be designed by an artist, behind whose wheel he would then sit. And luckily Jochen Neerpasch was open to this idea, also knowing that there had never been anything like this before. So it happened that in 1975, art entered into a very prestigious car race which until then had all been about competition, technology and knowledge of engineering. 

It was not only the Calder Art Car which was launched at the 24-hour race, but a few other Art Cars. Are there works of art which are not established in motor sports?

T. G.: When we look at the continuation of the series of Art Cars, we reflect primarily on the racing sports tradition – at least since 1999 again, with the Art Car by Jenny Holzer. The car, designed for Le Mans was also the return of BMW to the race. Then, after eight years’ break, the car by Olafur Eliasson arrived, it possessed a certain racing car tradition as the artist created his ice car on the basis of the BMW H2R racing vehicle – a prototype with which we broke all speed records when it comes to driving with alternative energy, in this case with hydrogen. We were then part of it all again at Le Mans with Jeff Koons. But you are right, after the Art Car by Andy Warhol in 1979, BMW series vehicles were also part of the Art Car range.

How do you select artists who have the honour of designing a car? Surely many artists want to do this?

T. G.: Yes, of course, the more successful a particular thing is, the more the responsibility you should take with respect to the BMW Art Cars. The credibility of this range comes from the fact that there were, for example, eight years between Holzer and Eliasson. Jeff Koons is already five years ago now. The important thing is that in 40 years only 17 automobiles have been created. But of course you are right in the assumption that there are many artists who would like to be part of this range as it unites a few artists who are very well-known today. We have to make every effort not to let the Art Cars get blown out of proportion or to dilute them, but to mindfully stride into the future with this great tradition. That’s why the selection process is set up so that we provide the vehicle. Ultimately that is our competency. A jury of renowned international curators and museum experts then select an artist without us having an influence on it.

How did Koons come upon this?

T. G.: Jeff Koons once said in an interview how much he would like to create a BMW Art Car. And who refuses Jeff Koons a wish? That’s why we approached him several years later and he was still greatly interested. But in the future a committee will decide again.

Was Mr Koons paid to participate?

T. G.: It is often implied that enormous sums of money changed hands here. For Jeff it was important to be part of this circle of artists who he greatly admired. Besides, the amounts for which he sells his works just wouldn’t have been possible for us to provide. The fact is that when BMW took on the production costs he worked without payment and cost-free – and he did that for a successful company like BMW! Instead, he requested two cars, as Warhol also got a car from BMW. Of course we were more than happy to give him one.

Jeff Koons possesses an absolutely admirable generosity when he supports a project. He wanted the money for his two cars in order to donate this to a foundation which takes care of children affected by divorce. That is a sign of greatness.

Jeff Koons created the BMW M3 GT2, which was present in Le Mans in 2010. What is behind his artistic design?

T. G.: You have to see the process. The speed fascinated him and the possibility of depicting this on a stationary car. Andy Warhol attempted this too, by painting the car so that the colours flowed into one another when it went past quickly. Jeff on the other hand, wanted to work with phosphorescent lenticular film which was to be applied to the car and which could create a random 3D picture that changed when you walked around the car. Unfortunately that idea was rejected as the film was too heavy. The artists have complete freedom in the design which is very important to us, but when the car sets off in Le Mans, the artist has to orient himself in such a way that the racing car’s chances are not limited due to weight and aerodynamics. 

For the bright colours, he was inspired by the events and advertisements for racing from the 70s and 80s. It was important for him that the car was not painted, as that would have created a completely different appearance. He decided on film stickers just as can be found throughout racing car tradition with advertising and sponsor stickers. It was just as important for him that the colours shined according to his mantra “glossy, shiny, shiny, glossy”. That was achieved when the films had been spray-coated twice. In doing this he wanted to show the “power under the hood”. In other words he wanted to show the dynamics and unleashed power which is inside a car - on the outside.  

How do you realise the artistic concept? To what extent is BMW involved?

T. G.: Of course we offer the artists our help. We have a worldwide network of specialists when it comes to car paint, who can manage even the greatest of challenges. And although the artists often have an atelier with one or two hundred helpers, our support is gladly received. We work together a painter, Walter Maurer, who has helped with the realisation since the first Art Car. The artists have often painted scaled models of their art car and Walter, as the expert, has often transferred the painting onto the car, of course under the watchful eye of the artist who in turn autographs it at the end.

So the artists seldom paint their Art Car themselves?

T. G.: There are two possibilities. We offer the help, but the artist is completely free in the design process up to the point that he also has to take the purpose of the car for racing in to account when considering the stickers. Warhol, Mahlangu, Nelson, Kayama, Hockney or Penck have all wanted to paint their cars themselves, for example. On the other hand, Cader, Stella and Lichtenstein painted small models which were then exactly transferred onto the real car by us and which was then signed by the artist and consequently became their artwork. Incidentally, Warhol came to Munich himself back then and painted his car in less than half an hour – the most valuable car in the history of our company.

And how was it with Koons? 

T. G.: He was thankful that the creation of the films or the alignment of the colours was taken on by BMW, as that’s where the racing car was. This was altered time and again in order to increase its chance of winning at Le Mans. It was extraordinarily difficult to print the design, which was created on the computer on a 3D model of a car, onto a 2D film which was then to be applied to the racing car.

Later, in December 2013, it was all about the US world premiere of his Art Car at the Art Basel Miami Beach. Of course we wanted that Jeff was on location. He said he would love to come but was searching for a special paint for one of his sculptures which just could not to be found as the manufacturer didn’t exist anymore – his employees had tried everything. Jeff Koons loved challenges however, and so he said that he would love to come to the art fair to personally present the car if we succeeded in finding this special paint somewhere in the world. The paint was not to be reproduced but had to be this exact special one. After a week of research we really found two large containers on the basement shelf of a Swiss paint shop. They directly contacted Jeff and he came to the fair, which meant an incredible media response for us. 

What artists would you wish for your next Art Car? 

T. G.: I think that the BMW Art Car series should also develop in the future, just as contemporary art does, by dedicating itself to the new media – key word digitalisation. Also, if you look at the series you will realise that out of 17 cars only two women are present, which might of course be blamed on the rather more male fascination for racing cars. With Kayama we have the only Asian artist on board at the moment. However, I really don’t want to anticipate the jury decision. We will reveal how the series will proceed at the end of the year. 


Dr. Thomas Girst has been responsible for the international cultural commitment of the BMW Group since 2003. He teaches at the LMU and the Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts) in Munich and is the author of several books. Most recently, the following books written by him were released: The Duchamp Dictionary (2014), BMW Art Cars (2014) and Art, Literature and the Japanese American Internment Experience (2015). 



Picture credits © David Johnson

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