BILBAO, Spain — “Unlike any other single invention,” claims the wall text at the entrance of Motion: Autos, Art, Architecture, “the automobile has completely transformed the urban and rural landscape of our planet and in turn our lifestyle.” As if to lend its support to this bold declarative, the hack and sputter of an engine suddenly went up from somewhere inside the labyrinth of galleries in the Guggenheim Bilbao’s special exhibition space.

Certainly, this account of the car’s importance is flattering to the likes of Volkswagen and Cadillac — listed, respectively, as a sponsor and a collaborator of the show, which is curated by Norman Foster, the British modernist architect of Gherkin fame, alongside Manuel Cirauqui and Lekha Hileman Waitoller.

A noted aficionado of classic cars, Foster has drawn from his private collection for the nucleus of what he has called his “requiem for the age of combustion.” The result is an exhibition that lionizes the personal automobile as an objet dart of unparalleled cultural influence while minimizing its negative effects. That Foster’s exhibition overlaps with the war in Ukraine, which has caused gas prices to soar around the world — exacting a heavy toll on car-dependent households in the process — is perhaps an unforeseeable twist of circumstance. That it takes place against the backdrop of an ever-worsening climate catastrophe decades in the making, driven in no small part by fossil fuel consumption, should be news to no one, however. The week of my visit, for instance, coincided with a heatwave in southern Spain that shattered records. In this context, to put it bluntly, the tenor of Motion indicates an almost incredible inability to read the moment and respond.

Edward Ruscha, “Standard Station” (1966), seven-color screenprint, 25.6 x 40 inches, artist proof (courtesy the artist, © Ed Ruscha)
R. Buckminster Fuller, “Dymaxion #4” (2010, based on #1-3, 1933-34). Foster Family Collection (© Norman Foster Foundation)

What story does Foster offer about his chosen subject? At the time of their invention, Motion would have it, cars “rescued cities from the stench, disease and pollution caused by horse-drawn vehicles.” It’s a glossy account that leaves out, as Paris Marx argues in their recent book Road to Nowhere, the huge spike in deaths from collisions brought on by the Model-T, particularly among children. But the show does not include 20th-century artistic depictions of cars as a “modern Moloch,” which might prompt uncomfortable reflections about the degree to which we have since grown accustomed to these fatalities. In a similar vein, the absence of Warhol’s car crash silk screens seems like a particularly glaring omission, as is the choice to devote a gallery to rhapsodizing the glamour and romance of the American highway with no discussion of the ways in which these infrastructure projects have sliced and diced the country’s historic minority communities. Motion is notably cagey about the personal automobile’s appeal to fascists (and here one might note show sponsor Volkswagen’s extensive use of slave labor both during WWII and under Brazil’s military dictatorship) — even when this has clear ramifications in the field of visual art. Foster has much to say about the allure of the car’s dynamism and speed for Italian Futurists, for instance, but stops short of recognizing this fascination’s latent, dangerous anti-humanism.

Acknowledgments of the earth’s fossil-fuel-driven climatological collapse are few and far between — usually accompanied by an assurance that electric vehicles are on the way to save the day. The show’s last gallery is devoted to design student proposals for the future of transportation, almost all featuring corporate partnerships from the likes of Bentley, Hyundai, and Ford; however well rendered, the visions dished up here often feel like goofily overelaborate ways of dodging the mass-transit boogie man. There’s more than a whiff of neoliberalism about the whole endeavor: that problems can be solved individually, that systemic changes need not be contemplated. 

Christo, “Wrapped Volkswagen (Project for 1961 Volkswagen Beetle Salon)” (2013), Project 1961, collage graphic with original Volkswagen covered in fabric and hand-overpainting, 22 x 28 inches, Ed. Nr.: L/XC + 160 + 50 AP + 15 HC (Galerie Breckner, © Christo, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2022)
Albert Kahn, “Ford Motor Company Highland Park Rendering bird’s eye view in 1924” (1924), ink on paper, 33.62 x 84.5 inches. Collection Cranbrook Art Museum, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, Gift of the Estate of John Bloom

Foster has drawn ire in the past for taking on fossil fuel adjacent architectural projects. In 2020, it was revealed that Foster + Partners had inked deals on a number of developments in Saudi Arabia, including an airport to service luxury travel to the Red Sea, after which the Architects Climate Action Network publicly questioned the firm’s stated commitments to fighting climate change. In response to this challenge, the firm pulled out of the climate action group Architects Declare, instead releasing a statement doubling down on their position that airport construction and environmentalism were compatible.

Alongside its historical narrative, Motion also posits cars as works of art themselves, a position that sometimes comes off as defensive. In the service of this idea, we are shown a bevy of sleek mid-century roadsters flanked by a reclining Henry Moore, a sprawling Calder mobile, and the upward sweep of Brancuşi’s “Bird in Space.” Shorn of their own context and histories, the sculptures are reduced to little more than backdrop pieces to bolster the vehicles’ cool and cachet. “Like great works of art,” the wall text tells us, “the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, Hispano-Suiza H6B Dubonnet Xenia and Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula hold rare value as limited editions for connoisseurs” — a limited vision of what art means if ever there was one. Are cars art, by this or any other definition? Surely there are more interesting — never mind more pressing — questions that we might be asking.

Harley Earl, “General Motors, Firebirds Models I, II and III” (1954-58), General Motors (© General Motors / Photograph by Rodney Morr)

Motion: Autos, Art, Architecture continues at Guggenheim Bilbao (Avenida Abandoibarra, 2, Bilbao, Spain) through September 18. The exhibition was curated by Norman Foster, Lekha Hileman Waitoller, and Manuel Cirauqui.

Erica X Eisen's works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Guardian, Hazlitt, The New Inquiry, The Paris Review Daily, The London Review of Books Blog, The Baffler, Slate, The Threepenny Review, Stinging...