When it's all over and some teacher-bot in the year 3000 is telling ancient-history students about the unlikely geopolitical phenomenon that was the United States, it's likely that we will be called "the nation of the car." Our colonial founders' obsession with the conquest of a 2,500-mile-wide slab of wild land required us to eradicate the Native Americans to take it, enslave a generation of Africans to work it, and construct the world's largest economy to pave it and make it affordable for us to drive back and forth across it.
Henry Ford's production-line mentality is our inheritance. It's the reptile brain of capitalism: people want this, so how do I make a lot of this really cheaply? And as much as cheap and easy transportation improved the lives of Americans throughout the twentieth century, our addiction to the oil that powers our transportation seems likely to be our unraveling in the twenty-first, and probably the unraveling of a good number of other nations, too.
So what do we do with the fourteen Art Deco cars and three motorcycles in the North Carolina Museum of Art's new Rolling Sculpture exhibit? On one hand, these ostentatious cars are the obscene baubles of the interwar industrialists whose progeny are today's rogue traders, junk bond kings, and profiteering Wells Fargo executives. On the other hand, the cars offer a nuanced look at how design aesthetics responded to the production line and its consumerist culture with a mixture of fantasy and faith.
Taken together, these vehicles express a futuristic optimism in the capacity of industry—and, therefore, in human imagination—to overpower nature. These cars are assassins, clad in brushed aluminum and glass, tasked with taking out agrarian life and Romanticism (albeit with a few wistful waves goodbye to Art Nouveau) once and for all.
Weirdly, today's futuristic visions still manifest Art Deco aesthetics. If you painted the swooping silver 1938 Hispano-Suiza "Xenia" black, it could be the next Batmobile—but the one-of-a-kind car was only thirty years removed from the Model T. Look at the "Xenia" and then at your MacBook to understand how generations of designers continue to imprint Deco upon the future.
"Streamlining" is one of the explicit themes of the exhibit. Most of the cars have formal elements recognizable from airplanes rather than autos, showing the designers' blind faith in aerodynamic profiles over Ford's horseless carriages. The central tailfin of the 1940 Tatra, a Czechoslovakian sedan that Volkswagen ripped off for its Beetle's design, and the airplane cabin on wheels that is the 1936 Stout Scarab, a forerunner of the minivan with lounge seating, are the most dramatic examples. If these models had wings, they would lift off at highway speeds.
Other cars look more like home appliances—or rather, 1950s and 1960s appliance design followed the sleek, singular forms of these cars. With its top down for display, the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt could be mistaken for a massive red refrigerator tipped on its back. The Thunderbolt's chrome skirt seems lifted from a Formica-top kitchen table. With only a small chrome lightning bolt on the door marking the smooth length of this car, ornament takes a back seat to form.
In Art Nouveau, ornamental plant shapes informed the overall object's design; for Deco designers, objects are symmetrical to best cut through the air, with afterthought hood ornaments such as the stylized archer on the 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow or the dramatic pair of eagle wings on the 1936 Voisin Clairière. Neither lilies nor nymphs grace these hoods.
Rolling Sculpture also shows that NCMA learned some lessons from the well-lit parking lot that was its Porsche show in 2013. Ken Gross, an automotive journalist and museum consultant, expertly coaxed collectors to loan the Porsches but didn't make the slightest connection to design ideas in the exhibit itself. Gross flexes his network of collectors and incomparable technical expertise again for Rolling Sculpture, but the museum has smartly paired him with its curator of ancient art, Caroline Rocheleau, to add design and art historical context. Rocheleau answered a volunteer call at the museum, which does not have a curator of design.
Rocheleau's contributions of wall texts for each vehicle are subtle but crucial, and they save Rolling Sculpture from being just another showroom without sales guys. To go with each car, she selected images of Art Deco-era furniture, housewares, and other objects that resonate with one of the car's design elements. The placards also have photographs of the cars' interiors to show the details of their dashboards, gauges, and décor. Additionally, Rocheleau likely had a hand in a 1929–1941 timeline on a wall outside the exhibition, which fills in historical context around Art Deco aesthetics despite being clogged with extraneous information, such as Dean Smith's birth date.
Ideally, the cars could have had some lighting within their cabins—I had to shine my phone's flashlight through a few windows to be able to see the interiors—and some of Rocheleau's resonant objects and furniture could have been placed in the galleries next to the cars. But NCMA has hit the minimal marks to call Rolling Sculpture a design show without having to wink at you.
Rocheleau's curation underscores the most substantial difference between Rolling Sculpture and the Porsche show. These Art Deco cars are legitimate fine art objects—essentially handmade cars. Five of them were produced in an edition of one, and four others had a single-digit run. The 1938 Talbot-Lago Teardrop coupe (only seventeen made) that opens the show required some 2,100 hours of craftsmanship. None of them can remotely be called a production line car, save perhaps the Tatra (3,056 made).
Which brings us back to the visionary industrialists who commissioned these cars and the wars we're fighting now to fill the tanks of the cars we're driving to the museum. As much as you want to ooh and aah over the aesthetics here, you have to acknowledge the politics behind them. Futuristic visions are always for the class that can afford to have them.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Learning Curves"