‘Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture’
A summer exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art looks at how the automobile has impacted our lives.
The view captured in John Baeder’s painting “Stardust Motel” looks like a scene you might see framed through the window of your vehicle. That’s precisely why Robin Reisenfeld included it in the Toledo Museum of Art’s upcoming exhibition paying tribute to car culture.
“It’s so vibrant and colorful,” says Reisenfeld, the curator who assembled “Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture,” which runs June 15 through Sept. 15. “It’s a real optimistic depiction of economic prosperity. All the signs are competing for attention and it’s a sort of clutter, but it’s reveling in the sign language that’s a manifestation of the highway. It’s celebrating vernacular art.”
Vernacular art, Reisenfeld explains, is rooted in popular culture as opposed to subject matter that originates from myths or religion, and “Life is a Highway” features about 150 works in various styles. About a quarter are from the Toledo Museum of Art’s collection, while the rest are on loan. Together, they allow for a thorough exploration of popular culture through the popularity of the car.
“The automobile is this great vehicle — no pun intended — to explore the vernacular culture in fine art,” Reisenfeld says. “It’s a through line.”
The city of Toledo’s automotive roots date back more than a century and were evident to Reisenfeld when she moved there from New York City in 2016. Toledo is home to a Jeep factory (the city made the vehicles first for Willys-Overland, then for Kaiser Jeep, then for American Motors, and now for Fiat Chrysler) and a General Motors plant, as well as a variety of auto-parts manufacturers.
“I was really struck by how close the attachment was, based on the automobile being a source of revenue and livelihood for a lot of people here,” says Reisenfeld, the museum’s curator of works on paper. “Everyone has an attachment to the automobile, but here it’s based upon not just status but pride.”
“Life is a Highway” is broken into three sections. The first showcases the emergence of the car and how artists used it to represent technological progress.
“Since its invention, artists have recognized the automobile as a symbol of transition and change,” Reisenfeld explains.
Works reflecting that include Charles Sheeler’s paintings and photos of Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit. The factory was notable for its complete integration of operations, taking in raw materials from its own docks or train line — the facility also had its own steel mill — and turning them out into finished Model T’s.
“It was like a vision of utopia,” Reisenfeld says.
Passenger auto production was suspended during World War II, but the postwar era saw the dramatic effects of car culture, from drive-up restaurants like the first McDonald’s to suburbanization and the creation of interstate highways.
“After World War II, the auto becomes a key element in the postwar economic boom,” Reisenfeld explains. “It represents middle class prosperity, leisure and freedom.”
Unsurprisingly, the pop art movement of the 1960s drew heavily on the idea of car culture, and works by artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg exemplify that idea in the second part of the exhibition. Oldenburg’s “Profile Airflow” plastic relief is one example of the variety of mediums on display. The piece depicts a 1930s-era Chrysler Airflow, one of the first cars designed using streamlining. It was too far ahead of its time and ended up a commercial failure.
“I was aware of a lot of artists who had worked with automotive imagery,” Reisenfeld says. “A common misconception is that this solely appears in photography, but you see it in all different media.”
The third part of the exhibit focuses on the latter part of the 20th century — when the bill comes due, so to speak, on cars and car culture. The American auto industry began to struggle in the 1970s as pollution from autos started to become an issue and a gas crisis forced a rethinking on what the car meant. One piece that exemplifies that is Edward Burtynsky’s “Oxford Tire Pile #8,” showing mountains of tires that have had their day.
“His work started with the realization that the automotive industry plays this double role,” Reisenfeld says. “On the one hand, it’s an expression of freedom and individuality and renewal. On the other hand, it’s played a key role in creating environmental problems.”
The curator notes that we’re at another point where our relationship with cars and car culture is ready to change, with the advent of autonomous vehicles and the move away from the internal combustion engine that has powered cars for most of the industry’s history.
“Right now, I think a lot of people are choosing not to purchase a car,” she says. “They might not have the same attachment that their parents or grandparents did. I hope this exhibit provides an opportunity to reflect on how we want the future to look.”
Toledo Museum of Art
2445 Monroe St., Toledo 43620, 419/255-8000, toledomuseum.org
Hours: Tues.–Wed. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Thur.–Fri. 10 a.m.–9 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.-–5 p.m., Sun.