Commercialism, art clash at N.C. Museum of Art

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 01:10 PM

“Porsche by Design:  Seducing Speed,”
N.C, Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, through Jan. 20.
Museum hours are Tuesday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The cars are gorgeous; they are displayed on platforms with large screen videos. Above and below are text and photographs that include the interiors, the rear-end motors and the designers. They could be in any sort of venue, but for this show, they are in our Museum of Art and so the questions keep coming up.
Art museums walk a fine line when it comes to mounting exhibitions of popular culture in a house which usually shows paintings, sculpture and videos by a single master or a group of artists. It would be naïve to think art museums must hold only to tradition, but it was that preservation of traditional art which won the hearts of the state Legislature and made our museum one of the few in the country to be funded by its state government. In this age of mounting costs and fewer financial resources, it would also be naïve to suggest that new ideas, which will bring in new members and new visitors, should not always be on the table. 
And there is the conundrum. How do you balance commercial products with high art and not lower your standards? The Porsche is presented as a dream of design where speed is part of the seduction. The word “seduction” has several definitions. Priority is given to things sexual, but another is “something that attracts or charms.” Somewhere in between was probably marketing’s idea.
The show is all about the miracle of design. What is missing is how the design of the cars relates to the art upstairs in the East Building and the permanent collection in the West Building. One short paragraph on the wall offers legitimacy to this automobile show in an art venue. It marks the 1951 exhibition “Eight Automobiles” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, whose curator, Arthur Drexler, said, “Automobiles are hollow rolling sculpture;” and continued that the interior spaces compare to architecture and, although the illusion of movement does not apply to architecture, it does to sculpture. 
I asked guest curator Ken Gross, former director of  Petersen Automotive Museum, Los Angeles; NCMA’s managing curator, Barbara Wiedemann; and Museum Director Larry Wheeler if they had considered putting some traditional art in the same galleries with the cars and the answer was no. Wheeler did point out the installation of Janis Joplin’s 356 C in front of the Rodins in West Building does attempt to encourage a conversation with the surrounding art. It would, however, take a very sophisticated visitor to understand the design connection between Joplin’s psychedelic fantasy and Rodin’s sculpture.
If we are going to seek new museum visitors, who will come to see these classic cars, why not bring some examples from the museum collection into the car show? Placing the traditional side-by–side with the popular would be an easy way to begin the engagement.  Joel Shapiro’s sculpture “Untitled,” 1989-90, and the “Latour d’Auvergne Triptych,” 1497, altarpiece immediately come to mind. “Untitled” is an abstract creation of a figure in movement and the altarpiece is an early example of experimenting with perspective, a mathematical formula which makes it possible to produce the illusion of space on a two-dimensional surface. 
The Porsche is a design success made possible by the engineering prowess of three Porsche men, Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951), son Ferdinand (Ferry) Anton Ernst Porsche (1909-1998), and grandson Ferdinand (Butzi) Alexander Porsche (1935-2012).  After working as a designer for other car companies, the senior Porsche opened his own firm and in the early 1930s hit pay dirt when the Hitler regime commissioned him to design a car for the people, which became the Volkswagen Beetle. The success of that car put the company on the map and brought it great economic gain.
The cars, 22 in all, include the 1938 Berlin-Rom Racer, Type 64;  the 1940 Gemünd Coupe, Type 356; the 1969 Spyder, 16 cylinder, Type 917;  and the 1977 Type 935 “Baby.” Most of the cars have been restored to a perfection that almost matches the original. Car enthusiasts will probably visit several times, matching what they know with the facts that accompany each car.  
There are also the star-owned cars. Besides Joplin’s 356C Cabriolet, 1965, there is Steve McQueen’s 356 Speed Star, 1600 super, 1958; Ralph Lauren’s 959, 1988; and four very special ones owned by Durham’s Ingram family. Cam Ingram is co-owner of Road Scholars, a company that specializes in restoring significant automobiles.
Threaded through the history of the cars is the push to design cars that will compete in the great races around the world with special emphasis on the 24-hour race at LeMans.
The catalogue is a real collector’s item with facts, details and gorgeous photographs of the Porsche sports and racing cars. There is a lot of material on the founders, their engineering expertise and the races they and their cars have won. What are missing are the World War II years. In Dan Neil’s catalogue essay he tells us the company was “reconstituted in exile, in an old sawmill in Gemünd, Austria.” The paragraph continues that three years after V-E Day during which “Ferdinand himself was unjustly detained in France” Porsche produced the first 356 Gemünd coupe. There is no explanation of this sentence; the history of the company and the family in the war years is carefully finessed.  The Nazi era cannot be erased by glossing over it, and, if the company used questionable labor forces and had special protection from Hitler, it needs to be written. The cars are the cars, but the facts bear telling. 
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.