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The great BMW art cars come home to Munich

Road Trip 2011: For years, BMWs painted by pop art stars like Andy Warhol and Alexander Calder have toured the world. But through September 25, most of the collection is on display at BMW Museum.

Artist Frank Stella joined Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, and many other leaders of the pop art movement in creating a BMW art car. The collection of 17 vehicles is on display at the BMW Museum in Munich through late September. CNET Road Trip 2011 got a chance to check out the works. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MUNICH, Germany--They all shared a medium: Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Alexander Calder, David Hockney, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and 12 others. But it wasn't canvas. In fact, it was the metal surfaces of a group of BMW cars, and together, for more than 35 years, they created one of the most unusual and unlikely collections of all time.

These are the BMW art cars, a group of 17 works by those world-famous artists and other leaders in the pop art movement. While most of the great works by these geniuses hang stationary on walls or stands around the world, some of these works have actually taken the track at races like Le Mans.

But, fittingly, it began with a kinetic artist: Calder. Asked by his friend Herve Poulain in 1973 if he'd be interested in painting a race car, the world's most famous creator of mobiles decided to accept the challenge. "It had always been the dearest wish of [auctioneer and race driver Poulain] to add 'artistic beauty to an already perfect object such as a racing car,'" reads an official article put out by BMW about the art cars. "And this was in the middle of the oil crisis, too, a time when the automobile was viewed critically. [Poulain] acknowledged that it would need a 'genius' to realize his idea. He found him in Alexander Calder."

As someone who had along history with kinetic art, Calder could hardly pass up the opportunity to apply his unique style to something that had 430 horsepower. And when BMW got on board, offering up a 3.0 CSL racing coupe that could compete at Le Mans, the project was a go.

"The task of developing a large idea on a small scale was nothing new to Calder," the article continues. "In 1973, he had had a jetliner painted in a similar way [and soon Calder was] painting a model on a scale of 1 to 5."

The car debuted in Paris in 1975 , but it's real "baptism of fire" was Le Mans. Though it ran well in trials, the car was pulled from the race because of a technical malfunction. But it probably wasn't because of the paint.

Though the collection has been around for 35 years, growing to its current number of 17 when Koons applied his explosive interpretation to a BMW M3 GT2 in 2010, it has rarely all been together, and never before was displayed in full here in Munich, BMW's corporate home.

But now it is, and as part of Road Trip 2011, I got a chance to see (most of) the collection at the BMW Museum, where it is being showed through September 25. Koons' addition wasn't there, however, and neither was that of Olafur Eliasson, who in a statement about the effects of climate change, created an ice sculpture around a special BMW H2R concept engine in 2007. It's hard to keep ice around for four years, after all.

But most of the rest of the collection was on hand, and placed as it is at the top of the beautiful BMW Museum, it is a worthy close to any visitor's trip to this shrine to Germany automaking, and which is just across the street from the automaker's other shrine to its brand, BMW World, otherwise known in German as "BMW Welt."

Seventeen artists
In addition to the works by the world-famous artists mentioned above, the collection also contains art cars by Ernst Fuchs, Matazo Kayama, Cesar Manrique, A.R. Penck, Esther Mahlangu, Sandro Chia, Jenny Holzer, and two Australians, Ken Done and Michael Jagamara Nelson.

The Australian offerings take on two of that country's styles--a Western motif, and an aboriginal. Altogether, though, the collection spans an extremely wide set of styles, and even utilizes a broad range of BMWs, including one of the company's most notorious cars ever, its M1. That's Warhol's car.

Being Warhol, there's of course a funny story about his car. BMW had hired a TV crew to document the artist's work, but Warhol finished painting the M1 in just 28 minutes, and the crew hadn't even arrived. He ended up having to add a few small details just so they could be captured on film.

And while the number of art cars grew steadily after Calder's contribution in 1975, "it was only afterwards that the concept gradually formed itself into a collection," another BMW article about the series reads, "a collection which to this day has remained unique in its nature in the automobile world."

One question that I had while I was viewing the cars was whether the artists were paid for their work, or whether it was a mutually beneficial, but non-remunerative partnership. In a way, it's both. According to BMW, Jeff Koons was given two BMWs in exchange for adding his masterpiece to the series. "Is this a bad deal for Koons, whose 'Balloon Flowers' has just been auctioned for $25.7 million?' asks the BMW article. Koons said no: "'I have always thought that it would be an honor to design a BMW art car. I am delighted to be able to continue a tradition which was founded by such prominent artists as Calder, Lichtenstein, Stella, and Warhol.'"

Though time is short, if you happen to be in Munich before the end of September, I highly recommend checking out the collection. Just don't bring your own paint. Unless it's to adorn your own BMW.