Hugh Pearman: Cars are no staple of art

New York’s Museum of Modern Art has been temporarily housed in an old stapler factory in Queen’s; Hugh Pearman is concerned that it looks like a car showroom

On one hand, you have a Damien Hirst drugs cabinet. On the other, is a 1963 Jaguar E-Type. Perhaps there’s some assonance there. Perhaps, too, there’s some connecting thread between a 1910 jungle scene by Rousseau and a military Jeep. It’s all rather tenuous. But that, depending on your viewpoint, is the strength or the weakness of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. What’s design? What’s art? And what’s wrong with mixing them up?

As everyone knows by now, New York’s MoMA has moved to a temporary new home in low-rise, blue-collar district Queen’s, while its preppy Manhattan home is being massively extended by Yoshio Taniguchi. Now you can concentrate on the collection, free from the distractions of being in a palace of culture. Because MoMA QNS, as they like to call it, is not palatial. It’s a boring old stapler factory, tarted up a bit by architect Michael Maltzan, but by no means a must-see destination in its own right.

With the original, slightly cracked, concrete factory floor in evidence, and the simplest of temporary white partitions dividing up the space, there really is nothing to look at apart from the art. Or the design, if you want to establish a difference. And I think we must. That Jag may be one of the most beautiful cars ever made, and MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry freely admits he is in love with it, but that doesn’t make it art, sorry. There have always been beautiful pieces of design – spoons, guns, tea clippers, clocks – which nobody has ever tried to pretend are anything grander than that. They do a job, they look good, but unless an artist decides to somehow incorporate them into a separate work, they remain merely good-looking, designed objects.

That sprinkling with the magic dust of art works by direct involvement, not by association. Just having half a dozen vehicles close to the Klimts and the Giacomettis, as MoMA QNS does in its opening season, is not enough. To do it justice, the museum recognises this to an extent – the cars, which also include a VW Beetle, a Ferrari F1 racer, and a Smart car, are placed in a separate area. It would have been too much to park a car – even Pininfarina’s ludicrously rare and disgracefully good-looking Cisitalia 202 GT of 1946 – in front of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Even though today’s Pininfarina company sponsored the car exhibition, thus ensuring that the Cisitalia is the first object you see.

Something about that industrial floor gives the game away. It feels like a car dealer’s showroom. You half expect to find a smarmy salesman. But luckily, elsewhere in the building, you get a much more satisfying proof of how the shift from design to art can be accomplished.

The Swiss Railways clock. A classic, yes? We love it, even Sir Nicholas Serota wears the watch, and for $150 (£98) or so, you can buy the wall-clock version in the MoMA shop. It’s good, but it is not art. Or it wasn’t, until 1990, when the artist Klaus Rinke made his installation entitled: Albert Einstein! When does Baden-Baden stop at this train?.

This intriguing work is there at MoMA QNS: a proper big fat Hilfiker Swiss Railways clock, mounted on a little wheeled truck on a scaled-down stretch of railway track. The clock – huge, as station clocks are – is immobile until you walk past it, whereupon a movement sensor sets the hands in motion. Einstein was given to such slips of the tongue, hence the title. Einstein, time, motion, railways; geddit? The point is this: whether or not you rate Rinke’s work as good, it needs his take on it to make that particular piece of design into art. Just as a glass cabinet full of standard drugs packaging is nothing more than that, unless Hirst arranges it and titles it: Liar.

But then Marcel Duchamp, who started the whole conceptual art bandwagon, was famously able to take a standard designed object – a porcelain urinal – turn it upside down, and call it Fountain as long ago as 1917. Nothing new there, then. As the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro once wisely observed, all art is a con trick. And as Tom Stoppard added in his play Travesties: my art belongs to Dada. Stoppard has the Dadaist Tristan Tzara write his name in the snow with his walking stick, and declare: ‘There! I think I’ll call it The Alps!’. That’s all it takes: the affirmation by the artist that what he has done is art.

And that is precisely what no designer, shackled by the demands of function, can ever achieve. Which is why – until, maybe, someone retitles it: This is not a car – it will always feel odd to find a mint condition E-Type in a museum of modern art.

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