Review: Andy Warhol’s painted cars, drawings arrive in Los Angeles


In 1986, to celebrate the company’s centenary, Mercedes-Benz hired Andy Warhol to paint 20 remarkable automobiles the German luxury automobile company had produced since 1886. If Warhol could remake Mao and Queen Elizabeth, why not a legendary W 125 Grand Prix runner? The art collection was experiencing a highly publicized boom in Germany and hiring a famous international artist to execute some kind of corporate business update on a celebrity tradition of aristocratic portraiture was a smart marketing plan.

The tragedy derailed him.

Warhol was just under halfway through the sumptuous order when he died, suddenly and unexpectedly, aged just 58. The artist only completed work on eight of the cars before succumbing, following major gallbladder surgeryin February 1987. So far, the paintings have not been shown together in the United States.

Twenty-seven paintings and 13 drawings by Andy Warhol are installed along with five of the Mercedes-Benz cars he photographed.

(Photo by Petersen’s Motor Museum

Twenty-seven of the 36 completed serigraphs (80 were planned) and the 13 pencil drawings are currently on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, where “Andy Warhol: Cars — Works from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection” has just opened in the first floor gallery. (The exhibition was co-curated by Petersen and Mercedes-Benz curator Renate Wiehager.) The artwork is associated with five of the eight vehicle models depicted in the paintings. As with much of what Warhol painted in the late 1970s and 1980s, after the nearly flawless series of superlative, art-historical works he produced between 1961 and around 1968, Mercedes paintings are commonplace. The vehicles, meanwhile, range from fascinating to extraordinary.

Come for the Warhols, stay for the cars.

And I say that knowing that cars are not my area of ​​expertise. The only thing I know about them is that my engineer grandfather designed a magneto for the Ford Model A, which replaced the successful Model T in 1928. End of deep understanding.

But I also know this: there’s a gorgeous 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing coupe, a silver model with a royal blue leather interior and a matching leather suitcase strapped to the rear deck, where it can be ogled covetously. through the rear window. Next to it are the perfectly pretty and decidedly sleepy portraits of Warhol. If given the choice between the car and a paint job, I’d take the car in a heartbeat.

I have a better grip on Warhol, and these serigraphs are pretty much a flop. They look like ordinary posters for a teenager’s room. An insurmountable dissonance, which requires some explanation, undermines them.

As he did with virtually all of his paintings after the classic 1962 Marilyn Monroe images became a sensation, Warhol used standard commercial photographs to create the basic silkscreen images which he printed on canvas. A helpful short in the exhibit shows him printing a painting of Elvis Presley with the help of Gerard Malanga, the studio assistant who did much of the work on Warhol’s early works. The canvas may begin by being painted in a solid acrylic color, or sometimes several shades applied in different forms, with the screen image printed on top. The drawings were made to work out the details.

A 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe.

A 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing Coupe was one of eight cars painted by Andy Warhol

(Photo by Petersen’s Motor Museum)

Warhol had a great style, but he wasn’t really a draughtsman. The car drawings were probably made using an opaque projector. The silkscreen photo would be projected onto a sheet of paper and the outlines of the car traced. These became secondary photographic serigraphs to be superimposed on the painted canvas, printed in other colors for visual interest. Some of the paintings are single images, others are divided into grids of four, eight or 12 repeating images.

Warhol’s technique does not come from the traditional practice of studio painting. Instead, it has two sources – one professional, one personal. Professionally, it was an inventive adaptation of commercial printing processes derived from photographs—something he knew well from his hugely successful career in Madison Avenue advertising. Personally, he was born out of the American gay subculture, which the artist also knew well.

How does an ordinary photo turn into a painting? Warhol’s response: By making paintings that are drag photographs.

The photograph is the equivalent of a fresh, intact face — a given. Acrylic colors are like makeup – foundation and lipstick, mascara and lipstick, wig and jewelry.

The difference between photography and painting was like the difference between James Slattery, the good old boy next door, and the exquisite Candy Darling, to name only Slattery’s transformation into the finest cinematic superstar working in the cinema. Warhol factory. Drag could turn a bland black and white photo into a glamorous painting.

The problem with the Mercedes commission isn’t that the cars started out with beauty already on their side, so the paint jobs didn’t have much to do. In the saloon, the luxurious 300 SL, a remarkable streamlined Formula 1 Grand Prix car from 1954 and an experimental low-slung fiberglass model from 1970, also with upward-opening gullwing doors, are certainly among the most aesthetic cars of the 20th century. But Marilyn, Jackie Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor weren’t exactly single before Warhol did his big silkscreen number on their photographs in the 1960s.

The question, I think, has more to do with sex.

A Technicolor painting of a Mercedes Benz W 125 Grand Prix Car.

Andy Warhol, “Mercedes Benz W 125 Grand Prix Car, 1937”, 1986, acrylic on canvas

(© 2022 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In binary American culture, the arts are collectively feminine. Few would recognize it, but they’ve always been for girls, which is what drag stood for. A Warhol painting offered a captivating exposition of an obscured cultural truth, not a resistance to it. And he could successfully use drag to paint entertainment celebrities of all kinds, whether Marilyn and Liz or Elvis and Muhammad Ali, because when finished, the transformation from photo to painting was sideways: which started as an entertainment remained an entertainment.

Cars, on the other hand, are gendered by American culture – the individualized manifestation of the modern industrial dynamo. Automobiles resist Warhol’s lateral drag transformation. Puffy paintings look silly at best and out of place at worst. The problem puzzled him.

Three photo-silkscreened canvases show Gottlieb Daimler or Karl Benz, engineers and founders of the companies that would later become Mercedes-Benz, aboard an 1886 Daimler Motor Carriage, generally considered the first automobile. (An intriguing replica model is nearby – a 19th-century horseless carriage.) These are the only paintings with people. But Warhol’s color-blocking attempt to update old photographs into something artfully abstract and modern fails, instead resembling C-minus flyers from an undergraduate design class.

The remaining paints are mostly just plain dull, with a squiggle of color here and a touch of flash there, just dressing up a conventional photo of a car. Looking at them I kept thinking of a loosely related Warhol project – his big 1963/64 car crash paintings. These are not glamorous cars. Photographs gleaned from the tabloid press instead show wrecked and upside-down cars, mangled bodies hanging and strewn about.

In them, Warhol was describing a founding myth of the New York school – which the manliness exhibits of Jackson Pollock, infamously killed in a 1956 drunken car accident on Long Island, was instrumental in the acceptance by Americans of the “daughter” category of art as a Global Triumph of the Cold War. His beautiful ethereal drip paintings were not enough on their own; they needed a backstory that was butch. Pollock’s ruin merged with that of movie star James Dean, also killed in a shipwreck. Civil rights movements were gaining momentum in the 1960s, and the arrogant, exclusive, straight white machismo that drove 1950s American culture was brilliantly exposed — and neutralized — through the application of pick-up. by an effeminate homosexual artist.

Nothing close to that power happens with the Mercedes-Benz Short Commission. But, boy, are the cars in the gallery breathtaking! As a bonus, Warhol’s sleek two-tone 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is parked in the museum lobby. His name is inscribed on the New York vanity plates, front and back. You should know that the artist did not have a license and never drove it; but, like a painting, the artist’s car is actually signed.

A Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow.

In 1974, Andy Warhol bought a Silver Shadow Rolls-Royce, but he didn’t have a driver’s license.

(Christopher Knight/Los Angeles Times)

‘Andy Warhol: Cars – Works from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection’

Where: Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd.
When: Monday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Until January 22.
Information: (323-930-CARS),


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