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Art Car: Icon of Our Time

by Donna Tennant
from "Start-Up Advice: The How To's of Art Cars"
published by the Orange Show Foundation

Illustrated by Beth Secor

The art car is a direct result of America's hands-on affair with the automobile that began after World War II and mushroomed over the past fifty years to the point where the car is the most powerful and persuasive symbol of contemporary life.

Growing up in America involves two important rites of passage obtaining a driver's license and owning your own car. A car means freedom, power, speed, and lots of attention, especially from the opposite sex.

Hot rodding, stock car and drag racing, demolition derbies, car shows, motorcycle clubs, lowriders, psychedelic vans, and art car parades are all a product of our car culture. Whether you're white or Chicano, male or female, rich or poor, your car is probably the most public and highly visible expression of your personality. As they say, you are what you drive.

The art car is the quirkiest, most creative, and most difficult to categorize of all types of cars. Art cars borrow from fine art, folk art, outsider art, street art, advertising, the automobile industry, current trends, religion, science, politics, literature, sex, architecture, design, photography, the landscape, and nearly anything else you can think of.


Its parents are the lowrider and the hot rod. Its aunts and uncles are the colorful jeepneys of the Philippines, the painted buses of Mexico and Panama, the ox carts of Costa Rica and Italy, the tap-tap of Haiti, the chivas of Columbia, the mammy wagons of Ghana, the lorries of Nigeria, the decorated Afghan and Pakistani trucks, and even the gypsy wagons of Europe.

In Costa Rica, for example, where oxcarts have been the only way to deliver coffee beans from the highlands to the market since the turn of the century, the complex patterns of points and geometric shapes painted on the wheels and the floral elements on the side panels have become the symbol of Costa Rican history and folklore. When gifts were being brought to church on saint days and holidays, the farmer would decorate his cart with flowers. From this came the idea of painting them permanently.

The buses of Panama grew out of the 1920's "chiva," a privately-owned pickup truck with seats for passengers. The owners named and decorated their trucks to individualize them and above all, to attract business. Exotic landscapes, cartoon figures, film stars, dragons, and "dichos" (sayings that deal with life, love, and faith) attract attention and as a result, have become a major tourist attraction.

Likewise, the chivas of Columbia provide basic transportation service from rural communities to larger cities, where regular buses have replaced them. Chivas painting is often a family affair with the son learning the craft from his father. Chivas are used in community events such as weddings, funerals, and political rallies, and small models of them are sold in the market place to both tourist and locals. Curiously, naming vehicles is universally done by owners in all of the countries mentioned.

One aspect of the overwhelming drive to personalize your vehicle is a reaction to mass­production and uniformity. The transformation from the ordinary to the aesthetic is a direct expression of human freedom. As James Harithas wrote in Collision(Houston, 1985), the art car is a personal power object, a fetish if you will, expanded and augmented by adding references to the outside world. It is an artistic experience in which the creator identifies and defines his own uniqueness. In a sense, he marks it until he feels culturally secure in it. Or as James Metcalf pointed out, he does it to gain security by means of art, animating that which is his with symbols of himself (Collision).

Similarly, the customized cars of the United States help shape a community's sense of itself by stressing the continuities that exist from generation to generation. This is both true of lowriders and hotrodders. It is difficult to determine which came first. Some say that the roots of both lay in car racing, which grew out of moonshiners outrunning the law. More likely it is just sheer love of speed. But everyone seems to agree that it began in southern California.

Lowriding is said to have been born in Los Angeles among Mexican immigrants in the 1930's, even though it didn't catch the attention of the media until much later. In fact, Moira F. Harris notes that pinstriping was first done in the 1920's. Painted flames became popular in the 1930's, abstract patterns were the rage in the 1960's, and the more realistic murals emerged in the 1970's (Art on the Road, 1988)

"Lowrider" refers to any car, truck, van, motorcycle, or even bicycle lowered to within a few inches of the road. Heavy-duty hydraulic suspension systems are installed to allow the car to be raised or lowered on command. There is an element of surprise about this that attracts attention: "They think that your car is broke and then you surprise the heck out of them" is the way one "chollo" put it. By raising and lowering the car quickly, it begins to "hop" dramatically like a jumping bean. There are contests to see whose car can hop the highest, which remarkably can be as much as three feet.

Then they "chop" the roof and door pillars and lower the car body on its frame by cutting the floor loose and removing an entire horizontal section around the body of the car. Skirts over the wheel wells and smaller tires make the car seem bigger and closer to the ground.

Why this desire for a ride that is "low and slow, mean and clean?" The better to see and be seen of course. Or as Michael Cutler Stone puts it, "It's a studied public presentation of self" ("Low and Slow," Studies in Latin American Public Culture, 1988). The relaxed, leisurely pace of the Latino is in direct contrast to the frantic Anglo-American. Lowriders seem to defy danger in their low retreat.

The practice of driving slowly also derives from car club caravans, where you are on parade. It is vital that everyone be able to admire and appreciate your custom body work and paint job. Most custom car artists are self taught, but it is a specialized skill for which they can command top dollar. Costly candy apple lacquer finishes consist of layer upon layer of iridescent, glitter­flecked or pearlized paints.

"Thirty or so layers of paint: a primer, a pearl, a couple of clears, a tint and a clear, another tint, another image. You can look right down into one of these paint jobs." writes Seymour Rosen (In Celebration of Ourselves, 1979).

Add to this an airbrushed mural, spectacular pinstriping, and chrome that has been re-plated and polished to a mirror finish. Outfit the inside with crushed velvet and velour upholstery, shag rugs, funny horns, and giant loudspeakers, and your ready to cruise on a Saturday night in maximum style.

Rather than an antisocial gang­related activity, lowriding is an uniquely American form of expression by the Chicano community. In Low 'n Slow, The Art of Lowridingby Alturas Films, one "pachuco" speculates that cruising dates back to the promenade in small Mexican towns where the men walked one way and the women walked the other. Like peacocks on parade, they strut and show their stuff.

For Michael Cutler Stone, on the other hand, the lowrider artist is following naturally in the footsteps of the mural renaissance school of post­revolutionary Mexico. It is public art at its most vital and accessible. Or perhaps as one "pachuco" summed it up succinctly, it's that "We noticed that the foxiest and coolest chicks went home with the lowriders"

In many ways, the lowrider is a product of the barrio and working class do-it-yourself roots. Making a virtue out of economic necessity, they prefer to put their money where it can be seen rather than "under the hood." And besides, anyone can plunk down a wad of cash for a new car. Only an artist with soul can create a lowrider.

Hot rods and muscle cars were also born in California in the 1930s but their heyday was the 1950's. First came the love of cars and the car clubs, with meetings on Saturday night. Then came Sunday afternoons spent at the drag races. Medium-sized American coupes with huge engines, jacked-up rear ends and big tires were the rage. After the hiatus on auto-manufacturing during World War II, the industry came on with a vengeance. Auto manufacturers began turning out big flamboyant ostentatious cars that broadcast their high price tags.

Next came the 1960's with twist parties, surfing, spring break, Jan and Dean, and the Beach Boys singing about 409s, GTOs, and Little Deuce Coupe. With names like Charger, Demon, Barracuda, and Javelin, these cars were aggressively masculine vulgar, impractical, uncomfortable, and above all, FAST. Squealing tires and burning rubber as you "peeled out" of a drive-in burger joint were a variation on the "eat my dust" mentality of the drag racer.

The hippie van, a traveling home, became a symbol of the counterculture mentality of the 1960s love child, who preferred to be free-floating, dropping in only for the occasional sit-in or Grateful Dead concert. On a moment's notice, you could leave for greener pastures. Decorating your van with political slogans, flowers and day­glo paint was a way to publicize your cause while camouflaging your dents in your aging vehicle. The van culture was eventually picked up by surfers and later, van clubbers, who spent thousands of dollars on their van interiors. In this way, street art enters the mainstream of society.

In the world of fine art, the car appeared as early as 1896 in a lithograph by Toulouse­Lautrec entitled The Motorist, but it was little more than a still-life object in the background. The Italian Futurist were the first artists to hone in on the excitement of the car's speed and dynamism. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote in 1908, "We declare the splendor of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty, the beauty of speed. A race­automobile adorned with great pipes like serpents with explosive breath a race-automobile which seems to rush over exploding powder is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace" (Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, 1968).


In the 1930s, painter Charles Sheeler was hired by the Ford Motor Company to take photographs of their new plant, and in 1931, Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts to paint murals on the Detroit auto industry. During the depression, the manufacture of cars was severely curtailed, but the car was still important as a way to escape hardship at home and travel to places of greater opportunity.

The 1950s ushered in a new automotive era in which marketing and advertising went hand-in-hand with styling and built-in obsolescence. Pop artists in the 1960s began drawing on the car culture for subject matter in a big way. Andy Warhol produced his oversized serial images of car crashes as part of his American Disaster Series and James Rosenquist focused on the view from the car in his billboard­sized paintings. Ed Ruscha's now­famous sized paintings of Standard gas stations (with no actual cars in them) also epitomized the view from the highway. In the mid-1960s, he published a book of photographs entitled 26 Gasoline Stations.

The Photorealists in particular were fascinated by cars. Ralph Boings painted Burger Chef Chevy and Airstream Trailer, Don Eddie did Pontiac Showroom I, Tom Blackwell painted Streetchopper, and Robert Bechtle did 60 Chevies. In fact, Bechtle was known as the "poet of the parking lot" and Eddy's painting career was launched in his father's garage, where he began his career doing custom paint jobs on cars and motorcycles. The car was one of the most emotionally-loaded public artifacts. In both Pop and Photorealist Art, there is a subtle denigration of the mentality that subscribes to such manufactured uniformity.

Taking this denigration one step further, Californian sculpture John Chamberlain raided auto junkyards for rusting pieces of machinery and car parts to create assemblages of considerable beauty in the 1960s. Assemblage art was born in California during the years following World War II, but it had its ultimate origins in cubist collage and construction along with the DADA movement during and immediately following World War I. Kurt Schwitters in Germany and Marcel Duchamp in New York were key figures in the transformation of found objects and rubbish into art.

The first generation of California assemblage artists, which included Edward Kienholz, Wallace Berman, Bruce Connor and George Herms, produced work of raw and dramatic power that has not been repeated in California. For the most part, it was an art of high moral purpose made by people who felt separated from middle-class values.

In 1957, Walter Hopps and Edward Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery at the first professional space in Los Angeles devoted to avant­garde art. Among the shows were several exhibitions of cars curated by Walter Hopps. In these he included lowriders along with cars created by local artists.

Junk and assemblage artists abound, perhaps because there is so much junk in the United States and it is cheap [or free]. The use of the castoffs of urban civilization to make art was also reflected in the combine paintings of Robert Rauschenburg in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Many of the art cars in the Houston parade are part of this junk sculpture, or as Marshall McLuhan poetically referred to it, "The Phoenix Syndrome." Larry Fuente's Mad Cad(commissioned by Ann Harithas in 1978) is an obsessive conglomeration of pink flamingos, mannequins, beads, buttons, dolls head, rhinestones and even bullets. In Fuente's words, he did it "to glorify the mundane, to apotheosize it, and to make it grandiose and holy."

David Best's 1978 Dodge Magnum (built in 1990 with University of Houston sculpture students) is so laded with junk that it can barely support its own weight, and the late Darrell Holman's Toy Car Limois the product of years of collecting and applying cast­offs.

By scavenging among the scarred objects of our materialistic society in the name of art, these artists are focusing attention on our out-of-control consumer values. This approach to embellishing and enlivening the skin of the car is, like the lowriders, rooted in popular traditions utilizing essential working class skills such as fitting, cutting, welding, etc. As James Harithas wrote about Salvatore Scarpitta, "These works are extraordinary, carrying the sensibility of weight-of-the-world weariness coupled with red-eyed determination, both grim and joyous, of the working class movement."

Harrod Blank is a San Francisco filmmaker who drives Oh My God,a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle with personal totems. He has pursued art car artists all over the country, filming them and their cars for Wild Wheels, a 64 minute film about art cars. From his experiences, Harrod concludes that car art is almost universally about ridiculing cars.

Harrod got the idea to decorate his car during summers spent in Mexico where residents paint their cars "really gaudy colors" and install little purple lights that go around the windows. Harrod says "I am using my car as a statement against what everybody else is using cars for to show off."


Nationally known painter, Gilbert Lujan from Los Angeles created an art car from a 1957 Chevy that is an icon of Chicano urban culture. Entitled Our Family Car(1985­86), it is a 1950 Chevrolet 2­door Sedan Lowrider that is no longer a car. It officially entered the world of sculpture when it became part of the exhibition, Hispanic Art in the United States(MFAH, 1987).

Even Kenny Scharf, an integral part of the East Village Punk Movement (1975­1985) in New York, did an art car. His Ultima Suprema Deluxais acrylic and found objects on a 1961 Cadillac, and was handled by Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Scharf was born in 1958 and by the time he hit high school, he was customizing everything in sight (Steven Hagar, Art After Midnight, 1986).


Perhaps for some "fine art" artists, their interest in the art car is symptomatic of a major break from mainstream art of the twentieth century and the desire to address a larger audience. They prefer to take their art to the public rather than wait for the public to enter the rare gallery that will show their work. They no longer want such a passive role in society.

There is an attempt by some art car artists to communicate a message to the person on the street about socially relevant themes. The Supreme Court Busby Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Scud Killerby Peter M. Alford, The Hempmobileby Rick Potthoff (painted with the slogan, "The good news is we found a plant that can save the world. The bad news is that it's illegal"), various cars addressing the theme of the environment, and even the Fruitmobile,with its understood message "Eat Oranges and Live" can be counted among cars with a message.

The upscale side of art cars is represented by Eric Staller's Lightmobile (1985), a Volkswagen Beetle covered with 1,659 white lights that blink in 23 computerized patterns. All that fancy flashing caught the attention of the Matsushita Investment and Development Company who commissioned him to create Magic Gardenin Osaka, Japan for a cool $750,000.

The BMW Art Car collection is another pricey marriage between the world of technology and the world of art. It began in 1975 when racing car driver Herve Poulain asked Alexander Calder to transform his 480 HP BMW 3.0 CSL (?!) into a work of art. BMW liked the idea so much that the next year they hired Frank Stella to paint a car. In 1977 it was Roy Lichtenstein, 1979 was Warhol, and in 1986 Robert Rauschenberg. There are now eleven cars in all, and they've been shown everywhere from New York to Tokyo to Sydney.

By far the most curious and enigmatic cars, however are those created by self-taught artist and visionaries such as "The Button Man" from South Carolina, Willard "The Texas Kid" Watson, Bob Daniels from Alabama, and the Reverend Charles E. Linville from Oregon. Art cars such as theirs are a nationwide phenomenon.

Daniels covered his car with spigots after God told him to clean up his act. Linville's 1967 Chevy Bel Air Dis Turbo is cluttered with paraphernalia such as bowling trophy men, doll parts, plastic dishes and even a toaster. The Button Man glues thousands of buttons on his car, and the Texas Kid's pickup is like a photo album on wheels.

The Reverend Howard Finster's Paradise Garden in Summerville, Georgia, includes a couple of old cars that are embellished with words from the bible that came to Finster in a vision. The Cross Garden in Prattville, Alabama, also has a truck covered with crosses and a drive-through area where motorist can pick up religious newspapers.

Artists such as Bob Daniels or Howard Finster are sometimes referred to as an outsider or a naive artist. Initially, the artist may seem easier to understand that the contemporary artist, but in reality his roots and motivations are [often] much more elusive. Typically, a practitioner of "outsider" art is reclusive and doesn't think of himself as an artist, although he usually has an intuitive sense of color, form, and design.

This artist works outside of and in ignorance of academic reference and approval, usually with discarded objects that he fashions into remarkably original works of art. According to Roger Cardinal (Outsider Art, 1972), singularity of purpose, intensity of commitment, and compulsion to create are the mark of the true outsider artist.

Unlike the folk artist who makes his artistic statement out of a communal sprit or tradition, the outsider blazes his own trail away from the collective and into a world of his own.

Perhaps in our exploration of the roots of art cars, we should look even further back to the prehistory of mankind when making images or fetishes was not art as we know it, but rather a highly personnel connection with nature. It was, ultimately, a way of knowing and understanding a hostile world.

Perhaps subconsciously, the visionary artist is seeking to restore the lost unity of myth and science, instinct and intellect, spirit and nature. His creation provides him with a focus for concentration and a jumping-off point for the expansion of his ideas. Working in isolation, he connects with something larger than his own work, and it is this experience that nourishes his spirit and keeps him creating.


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Last update April 1, 2004