MFAH Presents a Pretty Classy Parking Lot for Its “Sculpted” Exhibit

OMG, cars in the art museum. Did someone take a wrong turn on Bissonnet? Have the Philistines turned our august Museum of Fine Arts, Houston into a parking lot?

Over the years we’ve had pharaohs and monsters, Star Wars and baseball, so I suppose that one day it had to come to this. Now, with the exhibition “Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929-1940,” we have cars and cycles filling up the special exhibition galleries of the museum. Woe is us.

But wait. Now that I look around at them, maybe it’s not completely woe after all. Sure, for us purists, who prefer that our art galleries be as quiet as tombs, their white walls hung with widely spaced rectangles of canvas smeared with paint (which, God forbid, should ever resolve into recognizable human forms or bluebonnets), the mere thought of cars in art museums may be infuriating.

But one of my New Year’s resolutions (by now the only one still unbroken) was to broaden the scope of my art appreciation. No longer shall I be one of those art reviewers who say, to paraphrase a former Texas governor — perhaps the last one with a sense of humor — “If you can’t say something nice about an exhibition, come sit by me.” So I’m going to try, try, try to stifle my initial gag reflex and judge these machines as though they were actual works of art.
“Sculpted” in the title is the giveaway that that’s what we’re expected do — that they’re being offered up as art even more than automobiles. Should we call them artomobiles? Think Praxiteles, Bernini, Rodin as you look at them — or at least Picasso and Serra — to see how they measure up. It is an art museum, after all, even though for a while it’s going to look like a parking lot.

Let’s start with a few facts, per Cindi Strauss, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, who worked on the show with Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles: There are 14 automobiles and three motorcycles in the show — one not in place the day I visited, being held up by U.S. customs, who must think MFAH is planning to sell it or something; they were made in the United States, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia and Germany; all are from American collections, except for that one that’s giving the Feds so much trouble; and all were made between 1929 and 1940 — the height of Art Deco.

I got into the whole Art Deco thing back in December when I reviewed this show’s little sibling, “Deco Nights: Evenings in the Jazz Age,” which is still on view in the MFAH Law Building. I’ll spare readers a repetition of that discussion here, except to mention that I’ve since read this interesting observation, made by the art critic Hilton Kramer: “The function of Art Deco was to popularize the language of modernism (especially Cubism) for the general public and make it an easily assimilable and saleable commodity.” Kramer was pretty sharp, so it may be true. Whether or not it actually is, Art Deco certainly gave a look to modern concepts of machine efficiency, aerodynamics and sleekness circa the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

And it’s likely that these examples of Art Deco will make tickets to “Sculpted in Steel” extremely saleable. Yes, this is another of those MFAH ticketed shows that I’ve railed about in the past, but since I have a press pass now, I guess I shouldn’t rail anymore.

Since this isn’t your usual art museum exhibition, perhaps a little huckstering won’t be amiss.
Come one, come all, and you will see:

1. Edsel Ford’s 1934 Model 40 Speedster, a one-of-a-kind car made to his specifications, for which he paid $100,000 out of his own pocket — real money back then;
2. A bright orange 1930 Cord L-29 Cabriolet once owned by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright — the second Cord he owned;
3. A Stout Scarab from 1936 — only nine made (looking at it, you’ll understand why) — which could fall right in between a jackrabbit roadster and an armadillo sedan in a lunatic Art Car Parade;
4. A couple of French-made Delahaye 135Ms, one from 1936, the other from 1937, which make elegant-voluptuous-gorgeous-refined inadequate even used all together.
5. And much more.

Though I’m anything but a car person (another disclosure: I drive a 1998 Honda Accord — white, since the yellow one cost more. At last read, it had 39,612 miles on it — yes, a staggering 2,200 miles a year. I plan to still be driving it at the end of what I hope will be a long, even if low-mileage, life. When it comes to cars and perhaps in so many other ways as well, I’m like the proverbial little old lady who only drives to church on Sunday. Except that I’m the little old man who only drives to the art museum. So you should probably disregard anything I have to say about cars), these cars stir something even in me.

Ordinarily I look at road trips as self-inflicted wounds (self-inflicted decapitations if I-45 is involved), but I might be talked into one if I could go tripping in André Dubonnet’s (yes, that’s Dubonnet of the famous French fortified wine) 1938 Hispano-Suiza H6B “Xenia,” named after his beloved first wife. Or the Bugatti Type 46 Semi-Profile Coupe from 1929.
The timing of “Sculpted” could hardly be better, what with fast cars flashing back into the story line as Downton Abbey takes its last lavish gasps and plunges into the Art Deco era. Just like Downton, “Sculpted” is opulence-porn (automotive edition), giving us lesser individuals a glimpse of what things were like for the other one tenth of one percent.

These cars were not made for regular folks. Many were hand-made luxury goods for the very rich. Even the production models, like the 1935 Chrysler Imperial Model C-2 Airflow, cost double or triple the Model-Ts that rolled off Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Those were fine for just getting around — and profoundly changed the way humans lived, in fact — but weren’t nearly fine enough for that dramatic “moment of arrival” (to quote MFAH Director Gary Tinterow) impact demanded by the rich and famous. Remember the Habsburg carriage from last summer? Well, here are its 20th-century counterparts, with motors.

Come to think of it, we’ve been getting a lot of that opulence-porn thing lately, what with the Habsburgs and Houghton Hall — not that there’s anything wrong with that. For the next few months, we can lust for the curvaceous fenders and leer at the headlights, just as we do each week as we ogle the Abbey.

I have to admit that I had my doubts when I first heard that “Sculpted in Steel” was coming to MFAH. I do long for those exhibitions that make me work a little — and by that I’m talking about more than standing in lines and dodging crowds — exhibitions with a thesis to prove, like “American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World” of 2013, the last one curated by Emily Neff, formerly MFAH curator of American art, before she moved elsewhere. I still wonder if, sometimes, what makes it to museum galleries is closer to audience bait than art. But after a careful look around at “Sculpted,” with my new resolution of art open-mindedness, I have to admit: Pretty classy parking lot.

There’s a catalog. Buy it and take at least the vision of these beauties home with you. But don’t kid yourself (or anyone else). You won’t just be reading the articles. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the pages don’t get stuck together.

“Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929-1940”
Through May 30. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300,
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Randy Tibbits is an independent art writer and curator, specializing in the art history of Houston. He is a member of the Board of Directors of CASETA: Center for the Advancement and Study of Early Texas Art and the coordinator of HETAG: Houston Earlier Texas Art Group. He writes art exhibition reviews for Houston Press from time to time.