New York’s MoMA hints at societal dangers but can’t hide love of cars in “Automania”

In 1951, the Museum of Modern Art in New York justified its very first exhibition on automobiles by praising them as “hollow and rolling sculpture”. Even then, however, the dark side of the machines reshaping the American landscape was evident.

“The automobile is the greatest disaster in the history of urban architecture,” wrote Philip Johnson, the museum’s design guru, five years later. This duality of love against our best judgment animates the museum’s latest automobile exhibition, “Automania”, on display until January 2. The exhibition takes its aptly named name from a cheerful but disturbing cartoon that was nominated for an Oscar in 1964, Automania 2000, in which the planet is literally buried in cars.

There are other well-chosen markers of the car’s ill effects shown here: a classic photograph of a traffic jam by Andreas Feininger, Andy Warhol’s colorful morbid. Fourteen times orange car crash.

Andy Warhol’s colorful and morbid work “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times” from 1963 features a silkscreen image of a fatal car crash.(Paige Knight / Museum of Modern Art)

But to say that this show offers anything like a serious critique of the car and its dangers (the climate, the landscape, the city, the humans and other beings who get in its way) would be more stretchy than ‘a stretched limousine. Like that first MoMA show, and like most Americans, he is simply in love with the car. Nine are on display, divided between the museum’s sculpture garden and its design galleries, including one that appeared during its very first exhibition: a 1946 blood orange Cisitalia 202 GT designed by the legendary Pinin Farina.

It’s hard to think of the destruction caused by the automobile when you’re distracted by the clean lines of a 1962 Jaguar E-Type Roadster, arguably the sexiest car ever built, or a banana yellow Porsche 911 from 1965. The the most contemporary thing on the MoMA lot is a cute little Smart Car, which – I was surprised to realize – is now almost 20 years old.

A 1965 Porsche 911 is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, part of the New York institution "Automania" exposure.
A 1965 Porsche 911 is on display at the Museum of Modern Art, as part of the New York institution’s “Automania” exhibition.(Denis Doorly / Museum of Modern Art)

It’s a nice fantasy world. No SUV. Every car is not like every other car. Every grille hasn’t been enlarged in menacing truck style. The cute wins over the bully.

Something to ponder the next time you’re bumper to bumper on Central Expressway.

John Hill's
Thom is regularly hired to document the Californian work of architectural giant SOM, including this 1977 data center for Bank of America, San Francisco, where his sense of color and form is punctuated by the figure of a young woman.
An aerial photo shows the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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