In “Warhol & Cars: American Icons,” a touring exhibition that opened at the Museum of Art | Fort Lauderdale this month, the copious wall text makes frequent reference to the artist’s “Death and Disaster” series, which Warhol completed in the early to mid-1960s. In this macabre and chilling series, Warhol employed his trademark methods of repetition, clean paneling and bold color to immortalize symbols of destruction – atomic bombs, electric chairs, murders and especially automobile accidents. Enduring shockers like “Ambulance Disaster,” “Five Deaths on Orange,” “Red Car Crash” and “Green Car Crash” present mangled automobiles crushing twisted flesh. The images, reproduced ninefold or tenfold, play on our indecent urge to gawk at destruction.
But if you want to see these pieces, then you better jump onto a search engine, because they are not part of “Warhol & Cars” – at least not in the Museum of Art’s incarnation of the exhibit. This is inexplicable given the exhibition’s title and the constant references to this unseen series. It’s akin to presenting a Beethoven retrospective that doesn’t include the Ninth Symphony.
And it’s not the only problem with “Warhol & Cars,” an inherently worthwhile, if underwhelming, effort to spotlight an underrated thematic motif running through the artist’s four-decade career. There’s entirely too much wall text, a veritable tome of information – which wouldn’t be a problem if every word had value. Instead, phrases, sentences and entire paragraphs are lifted verbatim from other placards throughout the exhibition, a misbegotten exercise in redundancy that I’ve not encountered in any other museum (just because Warhol himself favored replication doesn’t mean his m.o. should spill onto the curator’s supplements).
That said, this is a Warhol show, so there’s naturally some great stuff here. It’s a treat to view some of his earliest works, including comic, frazzled watercolors of produce trucks and the women who sell their wares, that already, in the late ‘40s, revealed a distinctive, renegade artistic personality. The 1954 drawing “Dead Stop” is a witty piece of visual satire commissioned to be an auto-safety cautionary tale; it depicts two cars colliding into each other behind a prominent “Dead Stop” traffic sign underpinning the accident with deadpan bluntness.
In his days as a commercial magazine illustrator, largely in the 1950s, Warhol would create some of his most enduring silkscreens, paintings and screen prints of automobiles, many of which would anticipate or mirror his signature styles. “Cars (1963 Buick LeSabre)” features about 10 Buicks in various shades of black and translucent, hovering in the air and overlapping each other – a dreamlike conflagration of metal sameness. In “Lincoln Continental,” from 1962, Warhol removes the luxury car’s hood, windows and a couple of tires, reducing the skeletal frame to its boilerplate essence (Even when Warhol’s pieces were busy, they were never excessive, paring down objects to their fundamentals).
These pieces convey a vision that subverts and swallows up their ostensible purpose to advertise cars. For comparison, the exhibition includes a piece by another commercial artist, a Cadillac design painted by Glen Winterscheidt, whose slick and sleek presentation has a functional banality that could easily wind up on a modern wall calendar of nostalgic cars.
The exhibition also includes a short video of Warhol painting a BMW “art car” in 1979, as well as a scale model of the final result. Other pieces interspersed throughout the show include a series of neon, candy-colored trucks that joyfully undercut the machines’ hulking power, as well as two multicolored paintings of Lee Iococca, completed two years before Warhol’s death. Then there’s the interactive “Silver Clouds” installation: a small room in the center of the exhibition full of helium-filled, metalized plastic “pillows” that drift through the air on A/C and fan currents or lie on the ground waiting to be stimulated by visitors. It’s a fairly well-known Warhol piece, but its inclusion is suspect and random in a show otherwise devoted to automobiles, and it frankly is presented much more vibrantly in the current “Regarding Warhol” exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Finally, to the exhibit’s credit, we get two car crash pieces: 1978’s “Car Crash, Unpublished” and “Foot and Tire,” both of which are disturbing and gruesome, existing in a stylized, disturbing, otherworldly flicker of black-and-white dread. This a small gesture toward the comprehensive duality this exhibition should have represented. “Cars appear both as icons of the mythic American consumerist dream and its tragic, violent flipside,” says curator Gail Stavitsky in the introductory wall text. Showing more of this violent flipside, in all its iconic doom and gloom, would have made for a more honest and complete retrospective.
“Warhol & Cars: American Icons” is at Museum of Art, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., through Feb. 10. Tickets are $10 adults, $7 seniors and $5 children. For information, call 954/525-5500 or visit www.moafl.org.