For Italian artist Sandro Chia, a face is the focus of life and the world. So when he was invited by a luxury carmaker for an art series, he covered the surface of a car with faces. Painting the racing car prototype from the BMW 3 series in 1992, Chia wanted his work to represent stares.

“I have created an image – a world! Look at anything hard enough and it turns into a face,” Chia said, according to Thomas Girst, head of cultural engagement, BMW Group. The car designed by Chia is on display at the three-day India Art Fair in Delhi that ends on February 5.

BMW Art Car by Sandro Chia (1992).
BMW Art Car by Sandro Chia (1992).
Artist Sandro Chia painting on a BMW car.
Artist Sandro Chia painting on a BMW car.

Like BMW, several corporations over the years have engaged artists to produce works for their brand.

The Swedish spirit brand Absolut Vodka, for instance, has partnered with artists across genres, from Andy Warhol to Jay-Z, since 1979 to create unique limited edition bottles. In India, Absolut has worked with Manish Arora, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta, the last of whom created an installation in the shape of an Absolut bottle, using his favourite material, stainless steel vessels.

Andy Warhol's Absolut creation (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/absolutindia)
Andy Warhol's Absolut creation (Image courtesy: Facebook.com/absolutindia)

Car manufacturer Renault is another corporate art patron: it commissioned Indian artist Sen Shombit to paint the surface of a Renault Kwid.

The BMW Art Car series began in 1975 with the first automobile, the BMW 3.0. CSL, being designed by the American artist Alexander Calder. Since that first car almost 40 years ago, BMW has worked with artists from around the world to explore styles and design movements.

“The artists in the 1970s were heavyweights such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, both recognised founders of American Pop Art,” said Girst.

The carmaker has also collaborated with film-makers, such as Spike Jonze, Wong Lee and Wong Kar-wai, to create a film series showcasing the features of BMW cars. TitledThe Hire, the series stars Clive Owen as the driver of BM9999W vehicles.

BMW Art Car by Andy Warhol (1979).
BMW Art Car by Andy Warhol (1979).

Critics view these partnerships with scepticism, regarding them as marketing gimmicks for both parties involved – at the same time, though, the fact that the associations reach out to a wider audience, promoting art in the process, cannot be denied.

In an article published in the business magazine Fast Company, writer Elizabeth Segran wrote about this mutually beneficial relationship: “Each company appears to have its own idiosyncratic motives for bringing on artists and writers. In most cases, though, they are open about what they stand to gain from a residency program, and the art community is grateful for this honesty – not to mention the cash. The primary concern of the artists and writers is that these companies don’t influence what they choose to create or own the rights to what they produce.”

However, according to Michelle Wright, director of the UK-based Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy programme, the issue is more complex. She wrote in The Guardian: “Many believe that sponsorship of the arts is just an excuse for major corporations to brainwash us into thinking they care about society, although they do see sponsorship as an acceptable activity for legitimate businesses…. With this in mind, we need to understand the position an organisation represents. The sponsor reports to private interest and the charitable arts organisation to the interests of the public. Sponsorship isn’t philanthropy; it’s a business exchange and in this context, if a sponsorship can’t work for either party, then it shouldn’t be entered into.”

BMW Art Car by Esther Mahlangu (1991).
BMW Art Car by Esther Mahlangu (1991).

For the BMW Art Car programme, Girst claims that artists enjoy complete creative freedom. “Many artists showcased tradition and heritage in their distinctive ways, thus, adding a new facet to the collection. For example, Ken Done who is considered to be among Australia’s most significant artists and designers, actively promoted the vibrancy of Australia through his art and products, or Esther Mahlangu, who transformed the car into a unique Ndebele work of art.”

Like Mahlangu, many choose to represent the culture of their country or community. Others use the opportunity to explore a larger socio-political cause or the environmental aspects of art and car design.

For instance, artist Olafur Eliasson’s car design in 2007 emphasises the relationship between global warming and the automobile industry. The Danish artist was given a hydrogen-powered car to work with. The steel and ice covered automobile design created by Eliasson draws attention to the car’s fuel source – hydrogen, which liquefies and becomes fuel-ready at sub-zero temperatures. The only byproduct of hydrogen is water.

BMW Art Car by Olafur Eliasson (2007).
BMW Art Car by Olafur Eliasson (2007).

The last BMW art car, an M6 GTLM, was commissioned to John Baldessari. A minimalist, Baldessari stuck to the primary colour palate of red, blue and yellow.

Referring to the challenges involved in working with a car as your canvas, Baldessari, according to Girst, had said: “I have done only one work in my life involving a car before, and that was an image of a car. So for the BMW Art Car project, I entered uncharted territory, not just in terms of the subject, but also moving from two- to three-dimensional art. A challenge I did enjoy!”

Artist John Baldessari with his BMW Art Car (2016).
Artist John Baldessari with his BMW Art Car (2016).