BMW's Art Car series hails from the pre-branding era, making it a rather remarkable survivor of a different kind of corporate largesse. Initiated by a well-connected racing driver, the Art Cars also span several decades of the global art market, with all its trends, tribulations and shifting perceptions. Before the practice and promotion of art evolved into a market with more in common with financial circles than creative ones, the Art Cars were at the forefront of creative thinking.
The seventeen-strong collection - currently on show for the first time in London - began in 1975, when the company commissioned Alexander Calder to 'decorate' a BMW 3.0 CSL for the Le Man 24 Hour Race. The hook-up was instigated by the car's driver, Hervé Poulain, a friend of Calder's, and the car's wide wheelarches and angular rear spoiler provided the artist with the perfect canvas for a composition of contrasting blocks of colour.
It wasn't the first time an artist had decorated - or even celebrated - a car, but Calder's CSL bridged the gap between the post-Pop era of experimentation and the proto-branding era of high value corporate visibility.
For the first few cars, Poulain helmed the programme, calling in artists he'd met during his day job as an auctioneer. The following year, the baton passed to Frank Stella, who turned his Le Mans CSL into a geometric collage. 1977 saw Roy Lichtenstein give the Pop treatment to 320 Racing, a very successful partnership that saw the car finish the race in ninth place. The 1979 art car was another classic, in every sense, a BMW M1 decorated in broad, tactile brushstrokes by Andy Warhol. The car finished sixth, becoming the world's fastest work of art in the process.
For the next couple of decades, BMW commissioned artists to emblazon their works on conventional road cars, eschewing the big stakes attached to competition. The art shifted too, moving from American Pop artists to a more global selection, with Ernst Fuchs transforming a 635 CSI into a fiery mural in 1982, Robert Rauschenberg applying classical prints to a 635 CSI in 1986 and Michael Jagamara Nelson applying traditional Aboriginal forms and motifs to an M3 in 1989.
Although it's the bold motifs of Pop Art that's come to signify the Art Car series - from César Manrique's swirling forms on the 730i in 1990, to A.R. Penck's black and red Z1 of 1991 - the series took a more painterly turn in 1992. First came Sandro Chia's 3 Series Touring Car and its covering of interlocking faces, then David Hockney's classic 850CSI of 1995, an abstracted 'x-ray' of the interior of the big coupe.
In 1999, the Art Cars returned to Le Mans with Jenny Holzer's slogan covered V12 racing car, bearing the motif 'Protect me from what I want' in large, ominous letters.
The most radical Art Car followed in 2007, with Olafur Eliasson's BMW H2R, a conceptual hydrogen engine enveloped in an icy carapace by the Danish-born artist. More of an installation than a functional vehicle, 'Your mobile expectation' marked the emergence of a more questioning, confrontational artistic experience.
Most recently, the 17th Art Car was adorned with a complex dazzle pattern by the American artist Jeff Koons, embracing the sensation of speed created by a blur of moving lights. It's a fittingly digital statement by a series that weaves in and out of art's most progressive trends.
For a very limited time, these mobile canvases are on public display. Appropriately enough, the collection (save for Eliasson's very site specific object) is being presented at the NCP car park on Great Eastern Street, a classic slice of automotive concrete on the fringes of the city, hugely enlivened by its colorful cargo.