A 1951 art exhibition would change the way we viewed the automobile forever.
Since the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) was founded in 1929, it has been a leading proponent of contemporary and modernist art, encompassing not only what is commonly known as fine arts, but architecture, product design, photography, film, installations and electronic media.
Perhaps the most influential host to the conversation around latter-day aesthetics, its current location, designed by architects, Philip Goodwin and Edward Stone in 1939 on New York’s West 53rd street has staged some of the most celebrated and controversial art exhibitions of the 20th century.
In 1951, the motor industry was still struggling not only to rebuild following a devastating war, but also to redefine itself within a vastly different world order. Certainly, at the time, the automobile was not viewed as anything other than a highly sought-after consumer durable. That year, MoMa’s director of Architecture and Design, architect, Philip C. Johnson however, proposed an exhibition whose aim was to celebrate both the art and craft of automotive design.
“EIGHT AUTOMOBILES, an exhibition dealing with the aesthetics of automobile design”, previewed at MoMa in August that year, running through to November. The selected motor cars were chosen by curator Arthur Drexler “for their excellence as works of art and for their relevance to contemporary problems of passenger car design”. Displayed not for their historical progression, but more for their validity, the shortlisted vehicles were divided into three categories.
The ‘box on wheels’ approach, was exemplified by the choice of a 1928 Mercedes SS Tourer, (“designed on a heroic scale with each detail appropriately developed for the total effect”), a 1951 Willys M-38 Jeep (“a masterpiece of functionalist design… one of the very few genuine expressions of machine art”), a 1939 Bentley 2-door saloon by James Young (“…the parts applied to the Bentley are less significant than their remarkable intersections, which form the true basis for the design”), and a 1948 MG TC Midget (“…its stylistic understatement the result of careful attention to appearance itself”).
Next was what was termed ‘separate envelope design‘, illustrated by a 1937 Talbot-Lago by Figoni & Falaschi (“…a composition of five voluptuous shapes”), a 1937 Cord 812 Sedan (“…the outstanding American contribution to automobile design”), and 1941 Lincoln Continental Coupé (“…satisfies the requirements of connoisseurs, while capturing the imagination of a public less preoccupied with the refinements of automobile design.”)
The final category, described as ‘single envelope design‘ was represented solely by a 1947 Cisitalia 202 Coupé by Pininfarina (“…monolithic sculptural unity… a subtly pierced and modelled metal envelope.”) This car would go on to become the first automobile to be added to the museum’s permanent collection.
In addition to the eight selected vehicles, which were displayed upon an elevated roadway paved with marble chips, a further thirteen enlarged photographs of “well-designed automobiles” adorned the walls of the exhibition space, which comprised of a 1951 Muntz Jet, a 1950 Studebaker Champion, a 1936 Lincoln Zephyr, a 1951 Ford Sedan, a 1939 Cadillac 60 Special Sedan and a Willys-Overland Jeepster.
Three additional Pininfarina designs which furthered the Cisitalia’s theme were highlighted – a 1950 Bentley, a Maserati Coupé and a Simca convertible. Two British saloons were also included, a 1949 Triumph Renown and a 1950 Jaguar MK VII, while Germany was represented by the Volkswagen Beetle and 1948 Porsche 356.
Prior to this, formal celebration of the motor car was largely confined to the annual motor shows or perhaps GM’s lavish Motorama events where dreams were made broadly unobtainable flesh. Within the wider industry, apart from the likes of Harley Earl, Raymond Loewy and perhaps a few gifted Italian carrozzieri like Battista Farina, the craft of car design was almost wholly unrecognised.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Philip C. Johnson stated, “An automobile is a familiar 20th-century artefact, and is no less worthy of being judged for its visual appeal than a building or a chair. Automobiles are hollow, rolling sculpture, and the refinements of their design are fascinating. We have selected cars whose details and basic design suggest that automobiles, besides being America’s most useful Useful Objects, could be a source of visual experience more enjoyable than they now are.”
What Johnson, Arthur Drexler and MoMa achieved was to elevate the motorcar and to view automotive styling as a craft worthy of intellectual contemplation, criticism and broader discussion. It lent the automobile a credibility it had hitherto lacked – no longer solely a creation of the white heat of industry, but an aesthetic object in its own right. In so doing, it also helped elevate its most prolific practitioners.
But swords come with two blades and perhaps what 8 Automobiles also precipitated was a form of automotive worship. An idolatry that has led to classic (frequently Pininfarina-bodied) Ferraris commanding the equivalent $GDP of any number of small third World nation states.
Furthermore, while many auto designers have subsequently achieved their rightful recognition, an unforeseen and highly regrettable by-product has seen the rise of the designer as visionary, as guru, as master. And look where that has lead us.
Philip Johnson spoke in 1951 of being fascinated by the refinements in automotive design. It’s equally likely that this arbiter of taste and aesthetics would be horrified by its latter-day manifestation. Because of all the concrete dreams in his mind’s eye, it’s difficult to believe this is what Johnson envisaged through his architect’s eyes.