John Baldessari Blazes a Trail at the Daytona International Speedway With BMW Art Car #19

One of the most influential artists of our time, John Baldessari designs a minimalist, conceptual BMW M6 GTLM for a punishing 24-hour race in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Text by

Whether you’re a hardcare petrolhead or a racing novice, it is an undeniable fact that there’s nothing quite like the moment when the pace car pulls over, the green flag waves, and 55 cars tear down the track in one long, continuous roar. Over the weekend of January 28 and 29, motorsports fans descended on the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, to witness precisely this event at the Rolex 24—a grueling, 24-hour endurance race. This year, the marathon featured a bit of history in the making: racing in the GT Le Mans class was the BMW Art Car #19 by legendary conceptual and minimalist artist, John Baldessari.

"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!" says Baldessari.

The BMW M6 GTLM Art Car debuted at Art Basel Miami Beach late last year, and is the latest in a 40-year-old tradition that has most recently involved Jenny Holzer in 1999, Olafur Eliasson in 2007, and Jeff Koons in 2010. The program’s genesis lies with French race car driver and art aficionado Hervé Poulain, who merged the two worlds in 1975 by recruiting his friend Alexander Calder to paint a BMW 3.0 CSL, which became a favorite contender at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since then, an international jury of museum directors and curators have convened to choose the 17 participating artists. As head of cultural engagement at BMW Group Thomas Girst explains, "We have been engaged with hundreds of cultural initiatives worldwide, and every time we say the artist has complete freedom to do whatever they want, and they cherish that. Just look at John Baldessari’s very reduced, but hilarious, comment upon racing. I’m so happy we’ve added him to the pantheon of those artists that came before him."

Baldessari first drafted his ideas before transferring them to a blank maquette. Taking the car's weight into account, he and project leader Amanda McGough used a special kind of paint, which meant working with a different color scale and matching process altogether.

Race cars in the GTLM category typically have red mirrors, rear wing end plates, and windshield banner, but an exception was made to accommodate Baldessari's design vision.

Eighty-four years old at the time BMW Group approached him, Baldessari is the oldest in the roster, but he didn’t let age deter him. "Creating art that exists outside of a museum is important to me, and should be a goal for all artists," he has said. "This will definitely be my fastest artwork yet." Aside from the mandate that the car had to race—and that it had to be fast—there were no other parameters. The resulting design bears all the hallmarks of a typical Baldessari piece with a minimalist, graphic design featuring one of the artist’s iconic red dots on the roof. The word FAST is emblazoned on one side, and the image of a car marks the other in a playful, self-referential gesture.

Baldessari paints an oversized red dot on the roof, staying true to his artistic trademark and boosting the car's visibility during the race. 

"His objective was to give the car a design element from every vantage point, which wasn’t a beautification process, but which enunciated the beautiful design that was already there," says Amanda McGough, Baldessari Studio artist and project leader. "Even on the side, there’s a redundant image of the car, which I think was a gesture toward acknowledging its inherent beauty." The red dot on the roof was both an artistic signature and a clever way to boost the vehicle’s visibility. McGough explains, "It was really crucial for him that you could see the car in plain sight from above because the way he’s taken in racing culture has always been from the perspective of a viewer watching TV." Other cars, the artist has said, are plastered in advertisements—the BMW Art Car #19 is an advertisement for Baldessari himself.

The image of a car appears on one side of the BMW Art Car #19, using two- and three-dimensional elements to add ambiguity to the work. "Considering the car as an icon of contemporary life, my concept turned out playfully satirical," says Baldessari.

"His objective was to give the car a design element from every vantage point, which enunciated the beautiful design that was already there." - Amanda McGough

McGough poses with the car, which bears Baldessari's signature. "Having never been [to a race] before, I naively thought the sound of a car would be overwhelming, but it was exhilarating," she says of the Rolex 24. "It just made my heart pump." 

For BMW Team RLL, the tremendous honor is not lost. The names of the four drivers manning the Art Car—Bill Auberlen, Alexander Sims, Augusto Farfus, and Bruno Spengler—are printed above the door to commemorate their role in the car’s one and only race. Veteran driver Auberlen, who saw a BMW class victory in GT-2 20 years ago, proclaims, "The new highlight of my career is driving the John Baldessari Art Car." Drivers of both the #19 and #24 M6 GTLMs in the race, however, recognize the division between art object and race car. "When it comes down pit lane and I look at it, it’s an amazing, valuable work of art," says Auberlen. "The moment I sit behind it, it’s my office, it’s where I do my job, and I will drive it as hard as any car I’ve ever driven."

At the start of the race, the BMW M6 GTLM #24 keeps pace with #19. Unfortunately, vibration at the rear of the car takes it out of commission after 14 laps around the Daytona International Speedway.

In the BMW motorhome, fans are directed at helmets to dry off the sweat.

For 24 hours, the BMW Art Car #19 rocketed through the course, taking full advantage of the 31-degree banking to reach rubber-burning speeds. "I can see how the adrenaline of the race alone brings such beautiful design together," says McGough. "Going from designing a car to seeing it on a track doing what it’s supposed to do is spectacular." Despite rainy conditions and 21 full course yellows, in which all cars must slow down to 50 miles per hour, the team performed flawlessly, completing 652 laps before finishing the Rolex 24 in eighth place. Though it wasn’t exactly the outcome Team RLL had hoped for, it didn’t detract from the legacy of the Art Car, which is now entering its second life as a priceless work of art, and destined for the most prestigious museums the world over.

Night falls, the track is slick with rain, and the atmosphere of the infield grows more delirious as fans stay up to watch the race unfold.

"You’re asleep at 4:30 in the morning, and someone wakes you up in the motorhome and says you need to be in pit lane," says driver Alexander Sims. "You rush up there, and there’s a yellow, and you get in sooner than expected. Now you’re doing 180 miles an hour when you were asleep 30 minutes before. So that’s the strange and difficult part of an endurance race—getting your mind ready to jump in."  

Art Car aficionados have something else to look forward to as well—announced at the same time of John Baldessari’s commission, BMW Art Car #18 will be a collaboration with Chinese artist Cao Fei, the youngest and third female in the history of the program. Though hers comes later in the sequence, Fei requested that the car claim the number 18 spot because it connotes good luck in China. Scheduled to debut on May 31, the car will hit the track at the Macau Grand Prix at the end of this year.

Post-race, drivers Alexander Sims, Bill Auberlen, Bruno Spengler, and Augusto Farfus pose with the muddy—but unscathed—BMW Art Car #19.

What do you think about Baldessari's graphic car design? Let us know in the comments below.


Last Updated



Get the Dwell Newsletter

Be the first to see our latest home tours, design news, and more.