NEW YORK — There are currently 13 sculptures on display in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. Five have carburetors.
The “Please do not touch the artworks” sign by the oversize Calder mobile has a counterpart next to the 1965 Porsche 911. The latter is part of “Automania,” a highly engaging, impressively compact, and not-unconflicted show at MoMA.
The other motor vehicles parked in the garden belong to the show, too. They are a 1953 Army Jeep, a 1968 Fiat 500f (a contender for cutest car ever made), a 1973 Citroën DS 23 (if it had any less road clearance, it could double as a street sweeper), and a 2002 Smart Car. Although the vehicles leave the garden on Oct. 1, “Automania” runs through Jan. 2.
There’s much else in the show beside cars. One of the points “Automania” makes is how widespread and varied the impact of the automobile has been. Among the 90-odd items are a Picasso sculpture that uses two toy cars as components; a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph called “The Automobile Driver”; road signs (did you know that the ones in Britain use a bespoke font called Transport?); photographs by the likes of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Margaret Bourke-White, and Robert Frank; car-seat upholstery samples designed by Anni Albers; a 1965 Kenneth Anger short with the very vroom-vroom title “Kustom Kar Kommandos.”
The relationship between society (automobile culture) and the art world (culture culture) has traveled in both directions. Remove the text from a 1934 Shell Oil advertising poster that’s in the show, and you’d swear it was a Léger print.
The obvious point to putting those cars in the sculpture garden — speaking of traveling in both directions — is equivalence. Seen simply as three-dimensional forms, the vehicles are a functional version of sculpture. Set aside all the automotive associations: power, independence, mobility (also noise, fumes, congestion). Just as objects, these machines are very pleasing aesthetically.
The French cultural critic Roland Barthes saw the issue of equivalence in a similar, though even more exalted way. He wrote in 1955 that the automobile is “almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.”
Maybe Barthes was on to something with seeing the automobile in architectural terms, though more literally than he meant. Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Walter Gropius all tried their hand at designing an automobile. This makes sense. The Gothic cathedral was medieval spirituality rendered in stone. The automobile is modernity on four wheels.
Barthes’s term “purely magical object” applies as a description to two vehicles in “Automania” displayed inside the museum. A blue 1963 Jaguar E-Type roadster, known in North America as an XK-E, has such sleek elegance you can imagine the ghost of Brancusi saying, “Now that is the car for me.” Conversely, when Frank Sinatra first saw the model, he is reported to have said, “I want that car, and I want it now.”
Far homelier, but no less appealing is an Airstream Bambi Travel Trailer, also from 1963. It’s pretty adorable, a word rarely if ever uttered inside MoMA’s walls. Yet what word better describes the combined effect of the gleam of its unpainted aluminum exterior; the pleasing curve of its streamlined shape; and, above all, the wondrous spatial economy of its interior? “Snug” may apply, but definitely not “cramped.”
Adorable would never be used to describe the 1990 Ferrari Formula 1 racer also in the show. It’s thunder rendered in carbon fiber. The machine — and that’s what it is, all right, no ifs, ands, or buts, a machine — looks that powerful and explosive. With rear tires wider than a grown man’s forearm is long, it’s scary looking.
“Automania” does not shrink from the dark aspects of its subject. The exhibition follows a roughly chronological course, and the further along the history of the automobile goes, the more destructive it becomes. That’s where the show’s conflictedness comes in.
The title of the final section makes this plain. It’s called “Carmageddon.” Here the damage done by the automobile is confronted head on, looking at the immediate evils of traffic and pollution and energy extraction — and the far greater threat of climate change. “Automania” is both celebration and cautionary tale. Even as those beautiful machines in the garden enhance its appearance, they threaten its existence.
At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53d St. New York, through Jan. 2. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.