You can shop, eat in a restaurant, drink in a bar, and visit a museum. The museum is nicely air-conditioned, and a new show in the Museum of Modern Art promises a timely theme: “Automania” – the fascination with the automobile, put in perspective by cultural savvy. It is a disappointment. The folks at MOMA too put their pants on one leg at a time.
The hunger for intellectual nourishment is big, the Museum of Modern Art nicely filled. An imposing show of drawings by Cézanne attracts a rather modest crowd, but in front of the masterpieces in the permanent exhibition the crowd is sizeable. Van Gogh’s “starry night” is only visible from afar if you take the mandated social distancing halfway seriously.
On a smaller surface on the third floor MOMA takes up the automobile. The car as a revolutionizer of society, driver of the economy, consumer good par excellence, object of the desires of the masses – hard, but just barely to reach for most: All that makes the car more than a mere means of transportation is announced to be the subject of the “automaniac” exhibition.
Well – they say warring generals are stuck with the recent campaigns in their heads, and this might also go for museum curators – even those in the major leagues like the MOMA. What it shows here is the expected, the unsurprising culled in routine manner from thousands of tractates on cultural history. What you see are cars, fast and beautiful ones, starting with Alain Prost’s Ferrari at the entrance, followed by some classic midsizes in the courtyard and on the exhibition floor a Jaguar E-type and a VW beetle (end-of-the-fifties already with the large rear window). The visitor is teased with a little bit of early racing history, a tad of design from Detroit, a slice of pop art, a breath of road trip freedom (illustrated with a beautiful early airstream caravan). There is poster art, among the exhibits an anti-drunk-driving poster from Swiss Herbert Leupin. Robert Frank’s “Americans” are represented, on the road, also the planning atrocities of the sixties.
The public confirms the attraction of the issue. The E-type and the beetle are photographed from all angles. Which is just as well. Cars are beautiful and desirable, we know. The E-type is a gem, and the beetle tickles one’s nostalgic spot. Why did you commit that 1955 model to the shredder? However, you might expect more from a MOMA class exhibition than the fast food of ogling some handsome hardware. We live in a time of automotive upheaval, car ownership put into question, gasoline, and diesel fuels on their way out, the electrical vehicle is coming (or better roaring back after more than a century of industrial ostracism), the self-driver is waiting in the wings. A car show in the art museum should take the effects of those developments on the mass obsession with the automobile into its account, but to “Automania” it is diddly-squat. Maybe because the new is not resonating in art. Maybe because the curators are stuck with past obsessions like generals with past wars. Perhaps because even a powerful institution like MOMA is somewhat pained to get back on track after one year and a half of pandemic paralysis and chooses the easy road. Perhaps, too, it is simple marketing: the museal enterprise taps into the well-established fascination with the automobile – a retro fascination like rock ‘n roll or baseball – to attract new kinds of visitors.