BMW's Art Car Project makes moving works of art

Ken Done still recalls the time in 1989 when he took a phone call from BMW asking if he was interested in painting a car – not just any car, but No.8 of the famous Art Car Project.

The Australian artist says he was thrilled to have received the offer from Germany. "There'd been some very distinguished overseas artists involved in the project, Robert Rauschenberg for example, so it was a great honour to be asked," he says.

That honour was recently bestowed on artists Cao Fei and John Baldessari, who have been given the green light to create the next BMW Art Cars, numbers 18 and 19.

Each will work on an M6 GT3, with the finished works unveiled in 2017.

Been there, Done that

Back in the late 80s, Done was flown to BMW headquarters in Munich to meet with the curator of the collection and discuss the finer details of what was required. "He showed me the Andy Warhol car while I was there," Done says. "My first impression was that it was very immediate, as if he had painted it somewhere between lunch and afternoon tea. I decided that I could bring my skills to the project and find an Australian way of doing it."

On returning to Australia, Done was presented with a Group A M3 race car that had been driven to victory in the Australian Touring Car Championship. The livery had been removed and the car sprayed white to create a blank canvas.

"I wanted to make it like an Australian parrot; something immensely colourful that looks like it's moving fast, even when it's standing still," Done says. "I taped off various parts and supervised the spray painting in a garage in an industrial area in Mascot (Sydney).

"We sprayed the warm colours at the front, near the engine representing the heat and power, and the cooler colours towards the rear. And then I hand-painted various marks and spots over the top."

Wheel vision

The whole process from start to finish took around three days, and Done says he was the first of the artists in the Art Car Project to actually paint the wheels.


"It was a wonderful experience in which to have been involved. At one stage the car was shown in Sydney's MCA (Museum of Contemporary Art), and it has travelled the world as part of the collection ever since."

Done isn't the only Australian to have contributed to the Art Car Project. The distinguished Aboriginal artist Michael Nelson Jagamarra was also let loose on an M3 race car, giving it an indigenous flavour by covering it with earthy Papunya designs.

The fine art of motoring

The series kicked off back in 1975 when Herve Poulain, a French race car driver, commissioned American artist/sculptor Alexander Calder to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL which Poulain later raced in the 1975 Le Mans.

To date a total of 17 BMW Art Cars have been created, featuring some of the world's greatest artists, including David Hockney, Roy Lichenstein, and Frank Stella. They are kept at BMW headquarters and loaned out to cultural institutions around the world for exhibition.

Curator Thomas Girst once revealed that none of the artists have ever been paid for participating in the Art Car Project. "I think that's where the authenticity comes in. We're not using money to lure people to the project."

Which of the 17 cars to date do you like the best? Browse the gallery above and tell us which is your favourite BMW Art Car.