Steve McQueen raced them, James Dean died in one, Janis Joplin had a custom psychedelic model; Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno own dozens and travel long distances so they can drive them very, very fast.
The Porsche, the distinctive, aerodynamic, lightweight, low-slung, and undeniably sexy feat of German engineering, is considered by many to be a work of art. And though the 20-some Porsches coming to the North Carolina Museum of Art next fall won’t be billed as “art” per se, these finely crafted machines deserve their spot on the schedule as extraordinary examples of product design, says the museum’s director, Lawrence Wheeler.
“Porsche by Design: Seducing Speed,” opening October 12, is the museum’s first design exhibition, and the first U.S. art-museum auto show to focus on a single brand.
The consistency of the Porsche esthetic over decades of engineering innovations is a major theme of the exhibition, says its curator, Ken Gross. “Porsche has had a very distinctive look and way of building its cars,” says Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum and veteran of several art-museum auto shows. That characteristic form—streamlined, smooth, aerodynamic—is evident from the first car in the show, the 1938/39 Type 64 Berlin-Rom Racer designed by company founder Ferdinand Porsche (who also designed the Volkswagen Type 1 Sedan). The line of that first car “you can see sweeping through whole history of Porsche,” says Gross.
Other Porsches coming to Raleigh include the handcrafted 356 Gmund of 1949; the Type 550, the company’s first true race car; a 1958 Speedster 1600 Super that was raced by Steve McQueen and now belongs to his son Chad; Janis Joplin’s psychedelic Porsche Type 356C (which was painted by her roadie Dave Richards and is housed in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame); the 901 Prototype, model for the beloved 911, from 1963; and an ever-faster series of race cars that incorporate fiberglass, titanium, and the aerodynamic qualities of ground effect.
Even as technology evolved, the “design DNA” of the Porsche, as Dieter Landenberger, head of the automaker’s archive in Stuttgart, puts it, retained certain elements: on the inside, independent suspension and rear- or mid-mounted engines; on the outside, the high mud guards, wide shoulders, and long hoods that define the stylish, minimalist silhouette. Seinfeld once likened the Porsche esthetic to “a warm, round pebble in your hand.”
As a state museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art offers free general admission, but it will charge an $18 special-exhibition fee for “Porsche By Design.” It anticipates about 125,000 visitors, many of them potential first-timers who can roam the nation’s largest museum park (where Wheeler is thinking of sharing some property with a developer to raise future income) and tour the galleries to see the growing collections of art from around the world. Come for Chad McQueen’s Speedster 1600 Super from 1958, stay for the Renaissance painting, African art, Egyptian funerary objects, and the new Kehinde Wiley and Mickalene Thomas.
The show is being supported by sponsors, yet to be finalized, though Wheeler says they do not include Porsche. The company will pay, however, to ship the four cars it’s loaning from its Stuttgart museum. It will also pay some expenses for the videos accompanying the show, whose catalogue’s contributors include race-car driver and author Denise McCluggage, Robert Cumberford of Automobile Magazine, automotive historian Karl Ludvigsen, and Michael Mauer, chief designer at the Porsche Design Studio, among others. (Porsche has supported other exhibitions, including MoMA’s 2005 show devoted to the animations of Pixar, which was about to bring out the film Cars.)
Several of the autos destined for “Porsche By Design” have become veterans of the art circuit as museums harness their horsepower and star power to lure large paying audiences—especially from demographics that aren’t typical gallery-goers. “Speed, Style, and Beauty: Cars from the Ralph Lauren Collection” was a big draw for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2005. “The Allure of the Automobile,” which opened at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in 2010 (and traveled to the Portland Art Museum) attracted more visitors than the High’s showing of Monet’s Water Lilies. Gross was the curator of “The Allure,” as well as “Curves of Steel,” at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2007, “Speed: The Art of the Performance Automobile,” at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts last year, and “Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles,” coming to the Frist in Nashville next summer.
As he notes, while the art-museum auto exhibition is on the rise, it’s nothing new. The first was “Eight Automobiles,” the 1951 MoMA show curated by Arthur Drexler, who partly installed it on a ramp leading from the first-floor galleries to the garden. In the catalogue, he famously declared that cars are “rolling hollow sculpture.” This became a favorite line of Philip Johnson and a raison d’être for many museum car shows that followed. MoMA went on to stage eight more auto shows, most recently in 2002 with “AUTObodies: speed, sport, transport,” a survey of all six cars in its collection, held at MoMA QNS.
With the rare exception, like Christopher Mount’s “Different Roads: Automobiles for the Next Century,” at MoMA in 1999, most art-museum auto excursions veer away from addressing the car’s role in larger discussions about energy, sustainability, and pollution.
These conversations have been taking place in art museums through unrelated initiatives–funded by auto companies. One was the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile structure that merged roles of think tank and community center to explore issues of urban life at sites in New York, Berlin, and Mumbai.
VW (which began the process of merging with Porsche in 2007) funded the dome at MoMA PS1 and recently announced a more comprehensive involvement with the museum. This includes the new dome that was just completed in the Sandy-damaged Rockaway Peninsula in Queens; several education programs, including some online and more performative programs staged by the magazine Triple Canopy; two Francis Alÿs videos; and support for EXPO 1: New York, a “festival-as-institution” that tackles issues like environmental protection, social justice, shortages of resources, and population growth.
“Porsche By Design” will end with a 2010 version of the GT3R hybrid race car prototype, which uses a flywheel energy storage system to convert kinetic energy created during braking into an electrical current, supplementing the 670-horsepower gasoline-powered flat six engine. Though the project returns to the company’s origins–Ferdinand Porsche created the Lohner Semper Vivus hybrid in 1900—this auto, like the others, is built primarily for speed. The company plans to enter a new iteration in the 24-Hour race at LeMans in 2014.
This destiny embodies that more visceral reason that car shows attract big crowds. Embedded in cars like the Porsche are not only good lucks and great engineering but a magnetism that promises the thrill of a lifetime—if you can handle the horsepower.
“You almost can’t have a Porsche,” says Gross, “without at some point wanting to drive yours quickly.”