The influential architect Le Corbusier compared them to ancient Greek temples. The writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs labeled them the “chief destroyer of American communities.” Cars, in all their glory and all their faults, have come to symbolize a cornucopia of contrasts.
This dichotomy, and the conflicted feelings colliding within, is portrayed in Automania, a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show is a push and pull of four-wheel paraphernalia that retraces our complicated love affair with the automobile. Paintings, ad campaigns, architectural sketches, sculptures, and nine antique cars come together to paint a portrait of the machine that embodies American freedom and design innovation, as much as it denotes traffic, fatalities, and environmental disasters.
At a time when the pandemic has led to a spike in private car use at the expense of public transport in the U.S.—and when traffic death rates in the country are the highest in a century—Automania takes a look at the history of cars and poses urgent questions about their future.
“Cars are accessible and ubiquitous industrial products that are key to understanding the modern world in which we live,” says the exhibition’s curator Juliet Kinchin, whose team largely drew from MoMA’s collection to create the show. There is a life-size, plexiglass dummy that designers used to envision how an average male body might fit in the car seats (his name was Oscar, and to this day, he has no accurately designed female counterpart, despite the fact that this omission leads to more women dying in car crashes).
There is Picasso’s Baboon and Young—a bronze sculpture for which the painter famously confiscated his son’s car toys to meld them onto the baboon’s head. And there is Andy Warhol’s monumental, 1963 screen print “Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times,” which was created in a year when there were over 40,000 road deaths in the U.S. (Today’s average hovers around 38,000 a year—for comparison, that’s the equivalent of 115 fully-loaded Boeing 787 Dreamliners crashing every year.)
Cars transformed the mobility of the nation, but Kinchin says “it took a while for their adverse impact on our cities and natural landscapes to be fully registered.” Over the years, she explains, the American obsession with the car resulted in “rocketing levels of traffic” and high-speed road networks. Per the Department of Transportation, over 60% of households owned a vehicle in the 1960s; that increased to about 90% in 2017, with the average American household owning at least two cars.
“The way we design policies encourages the need to own a vehicle,” explains Brianne Eby, a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation and a behavioral science researcher, who says that emissions in suburban areas tend to be higher than in urban areas. “Sprawl is part of it. By definition, a sprawling approach to land use means you have to use cars to get everywhere.” LA’s notorious sprawl, for example, is illustrated in Edward Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip”–a 25-foot accordion foldout depicting every single yard of the 22-mile-long Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood (only a fraction of it is displayed in the exhibition).
Since the 1950s, the United States has spent nearly $10 trillion in public funds on highways and roads, many of which were designed to facilitate suburban commutes for white Americans at the expense of Black and brown communities. For the millions of Americans who live near these highways, noise and air pollution is a constant menace, but the environmental impacts of cars and motor vehicles are much more widespread.
Automania touches on this with several exhibits, including a scale model of American artist James Wines’ work of land art, “Ghost Parking Lot,” completed in 1978. By pouring concrete (a petroleum product) over a row of cars (which consume petroleum) in a parking lot in Hamden, Connecticut, Wines evoked the dominance of the car and the destructive power it wielded on the landscape.
In the United States, the transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, most of which come from cars and trucks—something that hasn’t been lost on scientists at GM and Ford, who knew as early as the 1960s that car emissions caused climate change.
“We have reached a critical moment in our relationship to the automobile that makes this topic particularly important right now,” says Kinchin, citing growing concerns about the impact of a pandemic that has put the desire for personal mobility front of mind, as well as the environmental repercussions of “gas-guzzling cars.”
In January 2021, GM became the first major U.S. automaker to pledge to go all-electric by 2035—though the move toward electric vehicles isn’t explored in the exhibition. And while electric vehicles can dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the automobile industry remains plagued with challenges. As Eby points out, electric vehicles won’t help reduce fatalities, or curb urban sprawl, or even alleviate the toll of traffic on mental health (road rage sound familiar?).
Eby believes that cars have become so embedded in our identities that we have forgotten, or chosen to forget, their harmful side. “Because of these social and identity forces, we’re not conditioned to think of vehicles as 4,000-pound dangerous tools but rather, we see the freedom,” she says. “The irony of the pandemic is that people have turned to cars for health and safety, and that has long-term ramifications.”
Automania is well aware of that tension between good and bad. After all, its title takes after a 1963 British satire called “Automania 2000,” which portrayed the automobile as a transportation innovator, then envisioned a dystopian gridlock of cars piling up taller than Big Ben or the Empire State Building. Released at a time when Britain’s fledgling motorways were still sparsely populated, the film sounds like a warning bell. Fifty-eight years later, so does the exhibition.