Meet John Baldessari, the Next BMW Art Car Artist

Everyone asks the 84-year-old about his art. Instead, we asked him about cars. Turns out, he’s a closet hot rod lover (and a whole lot more).

Laura Reynolds

John Baldessari greets us barefoot in his studio in Venice, Ca. The conceptual artist towers over us, white-bearded, much thinner than the hearty man we’ve seen in photos. He sits down behind his desk and looks at us with a piercing gaze. “Well?” he asks.

Well.

BMW just named Baldessari as one of its next Art Car artists, along with female Chinese multimedia ace Cao Fei. This is the first time in the program’s history, which spans 40-years, that two art cars simultaneously. From the iconic 3.0 CSL to the M1 racer, just 17 BMWs have become rolling canvases, featuring designs by contemporary artists such as Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol.

Group 4 M1 by Andy Warhol (1979)

Baldessari, 84, and Fei, 37, will become the oldest and youngest artists, respectively, to create a design for BMW. Both will work over the new M6 GT3, the racecar that replaces the Z4 in BMW factory racing next year.

The elder artist is known for his wry conceptual works, cheeky combinations of photos and text, and for placing colored dots over subjects’ faces. Everyone asks Baldessari about his art. Instead, we ask him about cars. And when we do, his eyes light up.

“You know the term ‘hot rod?’” asks. “Well, I had one. The basic shape was a ’32 Ford, and of course you’d have a big customized engine.”

He remembers his younger days, growing up near San Diego.

Z1 by A.R. Penck (1991)

“The next model was a ’36 Ford. And that one would be, you would actually customize the body, and you would lower the rear end, and I think you’d change the grille into a Nash … and you would get rid of the tail lights and have flush tail lights. And what else would you do with it? Of course, dual exhaust.”

Later in life, the artist switched to BMWs.

“I had a BMW, a white one, and it had a sunroof, I loved it, I would drive around with my dog, and then I came into some money, or I began selling art, and I had a 12-cylinder BMW. I forget what the model was—it was a sedan, it was beautiful.”

He may have swapped his Detroit hot rods for German luxury, but the old cars still strike a chord for Baldessari. “There’s a guy up the street here who has a beautiful hot rod, bright red, and white sidewall tires—remember white sidewall tires? It’s great to look at—they’re works of art.”

So how does the artist who famously declared, “I will not make any more boring art” feel about painting a racecar?

M3 GT2 by Jeff Koons (2010)

“It’s the first time I’ve done a three-dimensional object,” he says. “The idea of a car is making something beautiful, and I’m happy I participated in the program … I feel honored to be included.”

At the same time, Baldessari doesn’t worry about how his design will be perceived, nor does he seem overly attached to the project. That’s not too surprising, considering this is the man who, in 1970, burned his entire body of work over a 13-year period in a crematorium. (He then baked the ashes into cookies and exhibited them).

“I don’t have any message,” he says.

When asked about the challenges of designing a new BMW Art Car, Baldessari simply replies: “Just if I’m up to it. If I can pull it off.”