‘Popular! Popular! Pop! » : Jeff Koons at the wheel of his new limited edition BMW 8 Series
We spoke to Jeff Koons about the mix of pop, performance and punch in his design for the BMW M850i xDrive Gran Coupe
In 1975, Hervé Poulain, French auctioneer and art enthusiast, car racing enthusiast, had an original idea to combine his passions. Poulain was planning to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and wanted to make a splash whether he made the podium or not. He approached BMW Motorsport chief Jochen Neerpasch with the idea of commissioning an artist to paint a racing BMW 3 Series. Neerpasch liked the plan and they approached Poulain’s pal Alexander Calder, who also liked the plan and got to work, working first on a small car before the BMW workshop improved his design. .
This first Art Car was envisioned as a one-off project – a passion project rather than a public relations device – but it created such a positive spin that 19 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol (who painted his car, at hand, in 29 minutes), Frank Stella, Robert Rauschenberg, Jenny Holzer, John Baldessari and Olafur Eliasson, have joined the list of BMW Art Cars, making it one of the most dynamic, enduring collaborative art projects and fascinating.
Only one artist, however, was invited back. In 2010, Jeff Koons designed the 17th BMW Art Car, an M3 GT2 which also raced at Le Mans. Koons was such a fan of the Art Car series – and given his obvious interest in Duchamp’s readymades and the Pop Art of Lichtenstein and Warhol, you can see why – he even offered his services to BMW.
This relationship grew and Koons and the German auto giant collaborated again on The 8 X Jeff Koons, the first of the Art Car series to go into (very limited) production.
Only 99 of Koons’ M850i xDrive Gran Coupes – which he describes as “sporty and flashy as well as minimalist and conceptual” – will be produced, at the rate of two a week. The cars were launched digitally earlier this year and – all but one – sold out within three weeks.
The 8 X Jeff Koons made its first physical public appearance outside Rockefeller Center in New York earlier this month, a trailer for a Christie’s auction of the last available production car. It eventually sold for $475,000, with all proceeds going to the International Center for Missing & Exploited Children. (Koons is a major benefactor of the charity. The artist turned to them for help in the 1990s when his ex-wife Ilona Staller denied him the right to see their son Ludwig. Koons speaks openly and emotionally about the pain of this separation.)
Koons has a big family – he has six children with his wife, artist Justine Wheeler – and the new car is a relatively family-friendly four-seater. “I wanted a car that I would actually drive,” says Koons – but the design is closer to his early design for the first race car. “My initial idea was that the car was going on the track and suddenly you heard “Pop! Popular! Popular!” And it would be like these energy blasts were happening.
Koons’ plan A for his first car was to exaggerate the effect using lenticulars, but the idea proved impractical on a race car – “I wanted to make a car that had a chance of winning. he says. It’s even more impractical on a production car but Koons has returned to the ‘Pop! Popular!’ and a smoke puff device, this time meticulously rendered in paint.
“I really wanted to go back to something a bit warm and minimal but with that essence of thrust and energy,” he says. “So I worked with lines starting at the front that are very thin and widen as you go up on the surface of the car. You get this sense of aerodynamics and these little areas of energy vibrant.
BMW cultural engagement manager Thomas Girst said Koons made Covid-inconvenienced visits to its Dingolfing and Landshut plants as its design was completed while Koons’ team in New York worked on complex digital designs. Getting the right paint job suggested by the artist initially took 300 hours of skilled men and women, but the company says it has since reduced that time to a more manageable 250 hours.
Koons insisted, however, that this design be done in paint rather than printed vinyl, the device used on his first art car (in itself, that’s no mean feat of engineering). “I like the generosity of the paint,” says Koons. “When something is printed, you never get that saturation, you never get that bounty, the way the light bounces off the pigment.”
The red and leather interior, meanwhile, has a definite if unintentional Spider-Man vibe. “I didn’t expect people to watch it and think about Spider-Man, but I wanted them to feel that kind of energy, to feel something else running through their veins.”
Koons and Spider-Man have a history. The producers of the Oscar-winning animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse admitting that the 2014 Koons retrospective at the Whitney Museum was an influence and the idea was floated of the car appearing in a future Marvel production. Koons is somewhat skeptical.
However, he is keen to work with BMW again. “I hope BMW will invite me again. I hope to be able to work on an electric car or a prototype car of the future. This car delights and awakens the senses, but I hope to have the opportunity to design something from scratch that can comfort and protect. §