New Toledo Museum of Art exhibit examines the car as a complex cultural artifact

“Life is a Highway” takes up nearly 7,000 square feet of exhibition spaces. You’re going to want to spend some time checking out all the works.

Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Ed Ruscha, 1963.

Mirrored LSR Car 08-1 #1814 (left) and Land Speed Assault 07-8 #1758, 2007, Richard Marquis.

Highway Trust, James Rosenquist, 1977.

Dogs Chasing My Car In The Desert, John Divola.

Children, 2002, Richard Prince. One of a series of Prince works that incorporate aftermarket fiberglass hoods, further modified by the artist with standard bodyshop materials like Bondo.

America With Intersections and Walmarts, Roger Brown, 1990.

iilaalée = car (goes by itself) + ii = by means of which + dáanniili = we parade, 2015, Wendy Red Star.

The Red Light, George Segal, 1972.

National Waterfall Drive-In Theater, Robert Garcia, 1983.

A selection of McClelland Barclay’s illustrations for Fisher Body advertisments painted between 1928 and 1931.

“Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture” is not, as Toledo Museum of Art director Brian P. Kennedy explained in remarks before the opening of the exhibit, necessarily a show about the car. Rather, it’s about our relationship with the car — and how our relationship with these endlessly fascinating machines has shifted and evolved over the past century-plus of automobility.

So that means what you won’t see when you enter “Life is a Highway,” which runs until Sept. 15, are any actual cars. Though exhibits have brought cars into gallery spaces before, treating the cars themselves as art, this is something different.

That’s not to say it offers nothing for the bona-fide car geek. In fact, we’re exactly the sort of people who stand to benefit the most from the show.

It helps immensely that “Life is a Highway” doesn’t serve up what you’d normally think of as automotive-focused art. If you’ve ever been to a big concours, there’s a good chance you’ve walked through a tent containing photos, paintings and sculptures by artists who create with with an enthusiast’s eye for the benefit of other enthusiasts. At their best, these works are good, compelling stuff — but just as often they feel like saccharine, Kinkaide-ian nostalgia trips. They show cars, sometimes in a shimmering retro-fairytale fantasy setting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they rarely seem to say anything interesting about cars or how we relate to them.

I think this is because these artists, just like the rest of us, can sometimes get a little too close to the subject.

Highway Trust, James Rosenquist, 1977.

But cars are complicated. They brought cities like Toledo and Detroit immense prosperity, yet left them economically devastated when industry changed or moved elsewhere. They promise freedom even as, especially in heavily suburbanized regions like the Midwest, they lock us into a particular mode of living. The mobility they have enabled has changed how we relate to distance, giving us the joy of the road trip — but also the dreariness of sprawl. They are mass-produced objects (built in factories that, as the works of Charles Sheeler demonstrate, are themselves worthy artistic subjects), yet we use them as outlets for personal expression.

And since the very beginning, even when cars were just curiosities, we’ve projected onto them our dreams and aspirations.

With Rust Belt cities striving to reinvent themselves as something other than one-industry towns, and emerging technologies like automotive autonomy threatening to change our relationship with cars dramatically and irreversibly (if they ever figure out how to make it work, at least), now is the perfect moment to stop and take stock of all of the above.

Robert Frank (American, born Switzerland, 1924), Belle Isle, Detroit, from The Americans. Gelatin-silver print, 1955. 8 3/4 x 12 5/8 in. (22.2 x 32.1 cm). The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Target Collection of American Photography, museum purchase funded by Target Stores, 83.110. © Robert Frank; Courtesy of Pace / MacGill Gallery, New York

Kerry James Marshall (American, born 1955), 7am Sunday Morning. Acrylic on canvas banner, 2003. 120 x 216 in. (304.8 x 548.6 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Joseph and Jory Shapiro Fund by exchange, 2003.16. © Kerry James Marshall. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Holly Andres (American, born 1977), Anna’s Birthday Party #3. Chromogenic dye coupler print, 2010. 20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm). © Holly Andres Image courtesy of the artist

Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964), Landscape with Garage Lights. Oil on canvas, 1931–32. 32 x 41 7/8 in. (81.2 x 106.4). Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York: Marion Stratton Gould Fund. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Helen Levitt (American, 1913–2009), New York City (Spider Girl). Chromogenic color print, 1980. 12 1/4 × 18 in. (31.1× 45.7 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Frederick B. and Kate L. Shoemaker Fund, the Carl B. Spitzer Fund, and the Louise and Stanley Levison Fund, 2018.31. © The Estate of Helen Levitt

Edward Burtynsky (American, born 1955), Oxford Tire Pile #8. Chromogenic color print, 1999. 27 x 34 in. (68.6
x 86.4 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds given in memory of Larry Thompson by his children
and grandchildren, 2018. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis

Claes Oldenburg (American, born Sweden, 1929), Profile Airflow. Cast polyurethane relief over two-color lithograph, 1969. 33 1/4 x 65 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (84.5 x 166.4 x 9.5 cm). Collection of the Flint Institute of Arts, Flint, MI; Museum purchase. © 1969 Claes Oldenburg

Robert Indiana (American, 1928–2018), South Bend. Color lithograph, 1978. 30 x 27 15/16 in. (76.2 x 71 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Gift of Art Center, Inc., 1978.63. © Morgan Art Foundation Ltd. / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Don Eddy (American, born 1944), Red Mercedes. Color lithograph, 1972. 24 1/8 x 30 11/16 in. (61.3 x 78 cm). Toledo Museum of Art (Toledo, Ohio), Frederick B. and Kate L. Shoemaker Fund, 1974.36. © Don Eddy Image Credit: Christopher Ridgway

John Baeder (American, born 1938), Stardust Motel. Oil on canvas, 1977. 58 x 70 in. (147.3 x 177.8 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Richard Brown Baker, B.A. 1935, Collection Modern and Contemporary Art, 2008.19.762. Courtesy of the artist and OK Harris Works of Art, New York, NY

“Life is a Highway” doesn’t necessarily offer up a grand thesis on the subject that is American’s complicated relationship with the car — if it were preachy or domineering, it wouldn’t be a very good exhibit, anyway — but it invites you to consider the topic in ways that you, as a dedicated car nut, might not have considered.

There’s an impressive range of works represented in the exhibit, from the Depression-era photographs of Margaret Bourke-White to pieces by James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha and Claes Oldenburg. Two collaged prints by Wendy Red Star show how pickup trucks and SUVs have been incorporated, seemingly un-self-consciously, into a traditional Apsáalooke Nation ceremony. Yasuhiro Ishimoto’s square, black-and-white “car portraits” anticipate the car-centric corners of Instagram. Video works like Ralph Steiner’s entrancing “Mechanical Principles” add motion to the gallery spaces.

To make the exhibit even more engaging and accessible, it’s accompanied by a series of talks, car shows and a lineup of car-themed movies — including an outdoor drive-in showing of “American Graffiti” on Aug. 23 (check out a full schedule of related movie programming here).

Mirrored LSR Car 08-1 #1814 (left) and Land Speed Assault 07-8 #1758, 2007, Richard Marquis.

The last works you see before you exit the exhibit are the Jazz Age paintings of McClelland Barclay. If you’ve spent any time looking at old Fisher Body Co. print ads, you’ve probably seen his work, reduced to a few inches tall and stuck next to a wall of the late 1920s finest advertising copy.

The auto industry has generated volumes of ancillary creative media, but these are just about the only overtly commercial works in the exhibition. Yet, by the design of ad genius Theodore McManus — who commissioned the paintings — they barely show the car at all.

While I’m familiar with the ads that used Barclay’s work, and other lifestyle-evoking ad campaigns of the era (“She Drives a Duesenberg”), it’s interesting to view the original paintings in person. It’s easy to pick out certain features, like the heavy, dark line work defining the figures, that made them so effective as print ads.

But what really stands out is how Barclay makes the Fisher-bodied cars his work was painted to sell feel present, even when only the corner of a fender (if that!) is actually visible. It’s effective marketing and just maybe a sort of accidental commentary on the role of the car in American life — perhaps even more so now than when they were first painted.

“Life is a Highway” is a fairly extensive, almost 7,000-square-foot exhibit with a lot to appreciate. Show curator Robin Reisenfeld recommends treating it “like a Sunday drive. Take your time and enjoy the artwork. “

“Life is a Highway” runs until Sept. 15, 2019. Tickets to the show are free for Toledo Museum of Art members, $12 for nonmembers, $10 for military, college students and seniors, $7 for kids age 5-17 and free for kids 4 and under, with free admission on Thursday evenings. Visit the Toledo Museum of Art’s website for more information.

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