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Julie Mehretu and her BMW Art Car
Julie Mehretu and her BMW Art Car Copyright Credit: BMW Group
Copyright Credit: BMW Group
Copyright Credit: BMW Group

Moving masterpieces: A look back at BMW's most iconic Art Cars to celebrate Le Mans

By Theo Farrant
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As anticipation builds for this year's Le Mans endurance race, we explore the history and evolution of BMW's iconic Art Car project.

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Since 1975, the BMW Art Car Project has transformed the world of motorsports into an open canvas for some of the world's most renowned artists, including the likes of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein.

Over the years, these creative titans have been given complete freedom to turn BMW's ultra-fast vehicles into moving masterpieces, while redefining the concept of brand extension in the process.

Ethiopian American sculptor Julie Mehretu joins this esteemed group this year, unveiling a new dazzling design to appear at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans event this weekend.

But how was this unique fusion of art and motorsports come about?

A brief history of the BMW Art Car

The BMW Art Car project was conceived by French racing driver and art enthusiast Hervé Poulain. His vision was to combine his dual passions for racing and contemporary art, a concept that he proposed to his friend, American sculptor Alexander Calder.

With the green light from BMW Motorsport's then-head Jochen Neerpasch, Calder transformed Poulain's BMW 3.0 CSL into a vibrant, moving piece of art. The car made its debut at the 1975 24 Hours of Le Mans. Although it didn't finish the race, the Art Car sparked the birth of a cultural legacy for the luxury brand.

Alexander Calder with Herve Poulain in the studio
Alexander Calder with Herve Poulain in the studioCredit: BMW Group
The Alexander Calder painted 1975 BMW CSL.
The Alexander Calder painted 1975 BMW CSL. Credit: Bruce Lipsky/AP

Following Calder's pioneering effort, the Art Car series quickly gained momentum. In 1976, Frank Stella applied his minimalist, grid-based design to another BMW 3.0 CSL, reflecting his fascination with the structure and precision of race cars. A year later, pop art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein brought his signature comic-strip style to a BMW 320i.

The involvement of Andy Warhol in 1979 marked a huge milestone for the project. He needed just 24 minutes to paint the car, in a shop outside of Munich.

“I attempted to show speed as a visual image. When an automobile is really traveling fast, all the lines and colours are transformed into a blur,” Warhol said in explanation of his work.

The car's performance at Le Mans matched Warhol's swift painting process. It achieved a respectable sixth place overall and finished second in its category.

The BMW art car designed by Frank Stella on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA).
The BMW art car designed by Frank Stella on display at the Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art (LACMA). Credit: Nick Ut/AP
The BMW M1 car painted by American artist Andy Warhol in 1979 on display at the Centre for Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland.
The BMW M1 car painted by American artist Andy Warhol in 1979 on display at the Centre for Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland.Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP

Since then, the Art Car has continued to push the boundaries of creativity, featuring works from artists like Jenny Holzer, David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Esther Mahlangu, and many others. d

David Hockney's BMW 850 CSi (1995)
David Hockney's BMW 850 CSi (1995)Credit: BMW Group
Artist Jeff Koons unveils the North American premiere of his BMW Art Car (BMW M3 GT2) in the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens in 2013
Artist Jeff Koons unveils the North American premiere of his BMW Art Car (BMW M3 GT2) in the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens in 2013Credit: Donald Bowers/BMW Group

BMW's 20th Art Car

For this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, BMW presents its 20th Art Car, a stunning BMW M Hybrid V8 designed by contemporary artist Julie Mehretu.

Mehretu's design draws inspiration from her monumental painting "Everywhen" (2021-2023), aiming to make the car appear as if it had passed through the space of her artwork.

"I don’t think of this car as something you would exhibit. I am thinking of it as something that will race in Le Mans. It’s a performative painting," shares Julie Mehretu.

She adds: “The BMW Art Car is only completed once the race is over.”

Julie Mehretu and her BMW Art Car #20 at the world premiere at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 21 May 2024.
Julie Mehretu and her BMW Art Car #20 at the world premiere at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 21 May 2024.Credit: Pierrick Rocher/BMW Group
Everywhen by Julie Mehretu  (2021—23), on display at White Cube Gallery in London
Everywhen by Julie Mehretu (2021—23), on display at White Cube Gallery in London Credit: White Cube Gallery/Julie Mehretu

Mehretu's BMW M Hybrid V8 will compete at this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans carrying the number 20, and will be driven by BMW M works drivers Sheldon van der Linde, Robin Frijns, and René Rast.

The legendary endurance event, set to kick off on 15 June, promises to be a spectacle, drawing more than 250,000 spectators to the Circuit de la Sarthe.

We'll soon see if Mehretu's artful touch can help propel BMW to a triumphant finish. Win or lose, one thing's for sure - they'll be racing in unmatched style.

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