BMW cultural manager Thomas Girst on Baldessari’s Art Car and challenging perceptions

White BMW sports car photo
John Baldessari's BMW Art Car was unveiled at Art Basel Miami Beach last December
(Image credit: TBC)

This year two very different BMW Art Cars will be presented side-by-side. The second of the two, Art Car #19 by Los Angeles conceptual artist John Baldessari was previewed at the end of last year at Art Basel Miami Beach, with Art Car #18 by Chinese digital creative Cao Fei due later in the year. Baldessari’s 585hp M6 GTLM is set to compete on 28 and 29 January in the gruelling 24-hour marathon race Rolex 24 at Daytona Beach, Florida.

Whereas Baldessari is applying his minimalist style through a restrained colour palette of red, blue, yellow and green with an added playful satirical note in the form of the word ‘FAST’ typed boldly on the side of the race car, Fei will explore virtual and augmented reality in her art car. At 85 and 38, they also happen to be the oldest and youngest collaborators in the BMW art car project since its inception in 1975.

White BMW sports car view from above

Baldessari's BMW Art Car

(Image credit: TBC)

Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, David Hockney, Alexander Calder, Olafur Eliasson and Jeff Koons, to name a few, have all created BMW Art Cars. The project is, of course, an unparalleled marketing tools for the brand, yet these canvasses on wheels also reveal something about their time in history, the personalities involved, movements in art and trends in motoring. They are seldom predictable, sometimes socially relevant and almost always visually and viscerally thrilling, thanks in part to its curator Thomas Girst.

Girst is BMW’s cultural manager since 2004, in charge of the marque numerous artistic ventures including Tate Modern Live and the Art Journey initiative with Art Basel. We caught up with him to find out more...

W*: One of the interesting aspects of the art cars is that most of them race at the end of their journey. The 2010 M3 GT2 by Jeff Koons, for instance, was visually an ode to speed as is John Baldessari – possibly in a more ironic way. Are you pleased to bring back this racing element to the project?
TG: I am! What we got from Baldessari is a Baldessari. He has been eager to show his work outside the confines of the museum space choosing Art Basel for the world premiere instead of a museum and he loves the fact that it will race at the 24-hour endurance race. What he did was take a car and turn it into an advertisement for himself. Where we were delighted as Jeff Koons was when he became part of this pantheon of great artists, the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein, John said that just as in racing, they are all competition for him.

Baldessari painting car red

Baldessari painting his BMW Art Car

(Image credit: TBC)

What was it like working alongside Baldessari?
John is so tall and I told him that what I enjoyed most of all was that I get to hug him every time we meet! This amazing, amazing man is 85 and he just keeps on doing what he does, with a sense of humour and an easy-going west coast attitude that exudes so much positive energy. Sharing a glass of his favourite vodka in the bar of the Fontainebleau Hotel near the ocean at South Beach Miami a day before the world premiere of his art car while cracking jokes about the contemporary art world is priceless – trust me.

And how about Cao Fei – is working with a digital artist a little outside the BMW art car comfort zone?
Cao Fei is so intelligent, so focused and so serious in what she does in terms of her professional take on things. It is high time that both augmented and virtual reality are being toyed with. Cao Fei is fearless. We love to push things to the limit in everything we do. Artists are no longer about wielding brushes. She is boldly taking us where no one has gone before. She is taking the series into the 21st century.

Photo taken of artist from behind in the BMW factory

Cao Fei at the BMW factory. Photography courtesy of the artist

(Image credit: Cao Fei)

You help select the artists involved in the various BMW art projects, yet it is important for you then to allow creative freedom, which has helped the projects from becoming entirely commercial. Do you feel the Art Cars can do more – for instance challenge our perception of the motor car?
They better. The great thing about the series is that each car also defines a moment in time. Not only in regards to the art but also in regards to the car. For almost half a millennium now, artists have been painting on canvas. The canvas is meant to disappear. We look at this painting in regards to its surface the way we looked at them hundreds of years ago. With the art cars, the surface is a car – obviously. Our perception changes in time. We will look at the Calder’s BMW 3.0 CSL or Warhol’s M1 [from the 1970s] in a hundred years’ time the same way we look at a horse and carriage now.

The BMW Art Journey initiative feels even less brand focused, concentrating more on nurturing emerging artists. You seem very excited by the work of the current winner Abigail Reynolds…
Yes, she is currently in Iran creating her work, travelling by motorbike to visit the sites of ‘lost libraries’ along the Silk Road. It is very exciting. She is super-smart and her art is great and that trip is nothing short of amazing.

Empty landscape with tyre marks

Abigail Reynolds, BMW Art Journey winner, in the first leg of her journey along The Silk Road

(Image credit: TBC)

As the marque’s cultural manager, but also personally as an author of a number of books on the arts, including recently 100 Secrets of the Art World, what do you walk away with from these experiences?
The thrills are big as long as you remain curious and see the art car collaborations as an amazing way to broaden your own scope not only in regard to contemplating what constitutes contemporary art, but in regard to culture within society as a whole, on a global scale and in intricate ways. So, whether it is Eliasson ordering a walk-in freezer to present his car in [to raise awareness for renewable energy sources], or Koons whose car, when looked at close, will tell an amazing story nobody has picked up on yet, the thrills are there. Take your time and explore. That, after all, is what makes life worth living.


For more information, visit the BMW Art Car website and the Art Basel BMW Art Journey website

A writer and editor based in London, Nargess contributes to various international publications on all aspects of culture. She is editorial director on Voices, a US publication on wine, and has authored a few lifestyle books, including The Life Negroni.