Sculpted in Steel: Not the Car Show You’re Looking For

by Michael Bise March 6, 2016


I remember the Art of the Motorcycle show at the Guggenheim in ’98. I get it. Motorcycles and cars are an inextricable part of American culture. Many artists have delved into this psychosocial relationship in ways that open a window onto human behavior. When I first saw Easy Rider, and watched the redneck trucker blow Billy, Wyatt and their hand-built choppers off the road with a shotgun, I joined the revolution. J.G. Ballard did great work with these monstrous 20th-century machines in Crash, and when Gibby Haynes calmly told me that “Jesus built my car/It’s a love affair/Mainly Jesus and my Hotrod,” the preceding five minutes of ear-shattering angst somehow made sense.

But Sculpted in Steel: Art Deco Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1929-1940 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston is a bullshit car show. It features fourteen early twentieth-century luxury cars, race cars, and three motorcycles. I could be convinced by a car show. I’m a sucker for a good anthropological dig into the charred remains of the twentieth century. This is not that show. Yes, the cars are appealing. Drape a naked woman over one of their big, loping hoods and my heart rate might even go up a little. Yes, there are huge wall texts with illustrations that give us information about the cars’ companies, designers etc., but there’s little historical meat or psychological depth.

One label did let on that the manufacturer of that particular Brancusi death-dildo started out making “ultility” vehicles during the First World War. I’m going to assume that utility vehicle is code for tanks and armored trucks. The growth and technological innovation of the automobile industry that produced these candy-coated hotrods was spurred on by the technological demands of two world wars.

Wars have been an important engine for economic and technological expansion for thousands of years. These sex toys—which were designed and manufactured in a historical moment when fascism was taking hold all across Europe—are being exhibited while another demagogue with bad hair is poised to become a contender for this country’s presidency. Call me picky, but I  think this cries out for some rigorous, critical historical context. I want the J.G. Ballard version of this exhibition.

United Press International (UPI) photograph that served as the source image for the 'Five Deaths' paintings Archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

United Press International (UPI) photograph that served as the source image for the ‘Five Deaths’ paintings Archives of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh

Obviously the point of this show is not to get into the sexy, frightening, nitty-gritty of the Modern fusion of man and machine. Installed like a car dealership with the vehicles on white displays that mimic photo-shoot paper, Sculpted in Steel is not a museological show. You can’t buy the cars (actually, if you’re the right kind of chap maybe you can ask at the director’s office). But the effect is the same as a high-end trade show where people go to admire the cream of the fetishized technology that is destroying their lives.

This show, like the many sports shows museums put on, is designed to sell tickets. In spite of the fact that some museums have huge endowments, financial speculation and a government that doesn’t really give a shit about culture puts museums and private collections with invested endowments under the same pressure as all public cultural institutions. I’ve been bracing for the press release informing Houstonians that the Menil Collection will begin charging admission ever since that expensive restaurant opened in the parking lot.

Powerful private collectors like Eli Broad, the Rubells and the German guy who built a glass penthouse on top of a concrete Nazi bunker in the middle of Berlin and turned it into an enormous semi-public private art collection, are real threats to the continued survival of public museums. The closing of the Corcoran might well be a canary in the coal mine for museums moving forward. So museums pander. Instead of putting on a kick-ass car show that puts the automobile and all its wild, violent mythology under the microscope, they install a temporary boutique and force you to exit through the gift shop.

But we’ve all been taught that art is subjective, so in fairness I should say that the three douchebags in 300-dollar jeans with quilted back pockets, who entered the exhibition with me, thoroughly enjoyed Sculpted in Steel. They crouched down and peered over and took lots of pics. As I walked out of the Audrey Jones Beck building I had to laugh as I was greeted by a long line of Mercedes Benzs, BMWs and Audis rolling through valet service six feet from the front door. A luncheon for Sculpted in Steel? The valet didn’t know. I walked back to my Civic, which is full of empty plastic water bottles, and then burned an hour’s worth of gas driving home.


Through May 30 at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. 


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Dave Renner March 8, 2016 - 11:57

Sorry this guy didn’t enjoy the cars. I think he missed the point. These are artifacts from another era. Sounds like he dragged a bunch of his personal issues into the museum. Don’t have a drink with this guy or he will blubber all over you.

Peter March 8, 2016 - 14:20

I haven’t seen this show yet, but I’m looking forward to it. I never expected that the MFAH would frame it conceptually, explore its contexts rigorously, or even install it innovatively. But I’m fine with it having few didactics and forced narratives, allowing me bring to it my own contexts, as you have. Of course it will be popular with people of questionable douche accoutrement and itchy Instagram fingers. But those cars and motorcycles look neat. Large kinetic sculptures, seeming simultaneously futuristic and ancient, odd feats of design and manufacturing from 75+ years ago that we’d normally not a get a chance to see in person. I do hear what you’re saying, Michael. Yesterday’s freeway scene on 290 of car wreckage, a large naked woman dancing atop a big rig, a firetruck craning in to remove her, and hundreds of drivers halted in their vehicles, amused/disgusted/confused, was probably a more powerful contemporary art experience in your book. Probably mine too. But as far as big “bullshit” museum shows go (and most historic design shows), this seems like a decent one. It was, at the very least, successful in eliciting in you the impulse of ecstatic demolition.

Jeremy March 11, 2016 - 06:34

Haha… For some reason i liked this review…its just a car show! I think i liked the ministry and gibby reference at the beginning…i only wish that the ending would have been an hour long joint instead of an hours worth of gas…that would have been fitting. But nonetheless i can empathize with the feeling of leaving an exhibition feeling Let down, since typically its the opposite.

Dave Cearley March 15, 2016 - 17:43

The artist who wrote this better hope none of his patrons ever read it. His condescending attitude for mere mortals is telling.

Tom Devon May 28, 2016 - 08:42

Wow, just what we needed……another crass, arrogant, critic who writes his review from the perspective of how he wants people to view him (“I am so worldly, I have seen so many exhibits all over the world, I can use harsh language….blah, blah, blah). The review is not really about the show itself.

Museums must evolve to keep things interesting and attract new patrons. I have heard from numerous people that have attended this exhibit, (many who had not set foot in the MFAH in years). For whatever reason, they found the concept of the exhibit compelling enough to actually go to the Museum and check it out…and be impressed. Seems like this is exactly what the museum should focus on, not trying to please some self important critic hiding behind his notebook.

Terry Mahaffey May 28, 2016 - 15:39

I agree Tom, this review is not really about the show – there’s not much to say about it – it has more to do with the MFAH and its choices about which “shows” to mount. I took my nephew to see it. He liked it, but I thought it was unremarkable. My personal measurement of success for an exhibition is whether or not I learn something. I don’t even need to like the art. If I leave with a broadened understanding of the subject, then I call it a successful encounter with art. Certainly not so, in this case.

I did, however, come away with a broadened awareness of how the MFAH is becoming very elitist. While some institutions around the country are reducing admission charges, becoming totally free in many cases, the MFAH is tacking in the opposite direction. The ticket price for this “show” was a whopping $23. I took my nephew because he couldn’t afford it. The MFAH spends a lot of time extolling its virtue for being free on Thursdays, but if you’re a single parent living in Katy and working two or three jobs to make ends meet, free Thursdays doesn’t help you at all. The museum should triple its membership fees and be free for everybody all the time. It can be done. It is being done. There is much evidence to support it.

While I agree that a museum must “keep things interesting,” which it did not do in this particular case, I don’t agree that the museum’s role is to attract new “patrons.” While seeking patronage is an important administrative function, it is not the core role of a museum. A museum is a place where cultural artifacts are maintained and displayed for the public’s use. Curators organize these artifacts into cogent and meaningful exhibitions, or at least they should, in order to increase our understanding of our current and past cultures. A museum should not be a place of spectacle and entertainment meant only for those with the ability to pay. Which brings us back to the original complaint of the reviewer: It was designed solely to sell tickets – very expensive ones in this case – and funnel everyone into the gift shop afterward. There is absolutely no value in that.

WJG May 29, 2016 - 07:54

For years the MFAH has run exhibitions that may or may not be art (Photographs from the Texans Training Camp) to bring people into the museum. This is one of those shows. Yes, it’s a riff on the Guggenheim show and that gives it legitimacy and yes, $23 admission fee is too high for an institution with a billion dollar endowment. It would be interesting to know if these types of exhibitions fulfill their purpose of drawing audiences that either stay to see the rest of the museum or return for that purpose. If it’s not successful, perhaps The Art of the Dog (puppy paintings) and artifacts from Cooperstown can be dispensed with. All shows cost money to mount; is this type of show a good investment? Because really that’s all it is.

Robert Boyd May 30, 2016 - 11:37

Shows like this serve the purpose of making money for the museum. Programming revenue is important for the MFAH, even with their large endowment. All the better if the car enthusiasts who visit become members or otherwise return for future visits, but that $23 multiplied by thousands of visitors adds up. The endowment is not a bank that the museum can withdraw from–it is a bunch of investments that throw off cash flows that the museum uses every year to operate and acquire new works. But the museum also needs programming revenue as well to operate–and that includes lots of tickets sold for popular blockbuster shows (as well as tuition from the Glassell school, sales from the gift shop and memberships). And it also needs people donating money every year, the third leg of revenue.

Whether such shows are shows the museum should be having is a different question. And whether the museum should be charging such high admission is a difficult question. But to say that they don’t need the revenue because they have a big endowment seems a little naive.

WJG May 30, 2016 - 14:54

Naïve is not something I hear much. Let me present my thought more clearly.

The exhibition is at cross-purposes if it’s intent is to draw people who are not regular museum goers. The subject matter draws them in and the admission cost repels them, perhaps permanently. If drawing people in is the point then an investment in those people is appropriate and MFAH has the development infrastructure, and the financial and donor resources to do that (the billion dollar comment). If the point is to simply generate revenue, so be it, but then the artistic merits of the exhibition become more debatable.

Let me also point out that the Menil and the CAMH present exhibitions without charging admission, so it can be done.

Terry Mahaffey May 30, 2016 - 16:28

The CAMH is not really a fair comparison since it has no collection to maintain. The Menil is a fairer comparison, but they have a smaller collection to maintain due to the MFAH’s seemingly unrestrained growth of the past few decades. The most recent convert to free admission in Texas is the Dallas Museum of Art. They eliminated their general admission fee in 2013 and saw their attendance numbers jump from 498K to 668K visitors in the first year, along with a 29 percent increase in non-white minority visitors. Financially, they were in an inferior position to the MFAH, and yet they made it work. A recent out-of-state example is the Bronx Museum, who eliminated their admission fee (because of a grant to do so) and saw their attendance nearly triple in the following year. If a museum intends to be a place where the public can have a meaningful encounter with art, then these museums are serving their communities now like never before.

To be sure, the loss of revenue must be accounted for, but the good news is that it is a very small part of the overall funding of a museum. Nationally, admission fees contribute an average of only about 4 percent of earned annual revenue. One simple way to make up this loss is to increase the membership fees of dues-paying patrons. People who are willing to financially support the museum would be willing to pay a little extra to serve a broader swath of the community, maybe even a lot extra. I am. The Menil has always been free for everybody, yet it has a large group of patrons who pay an annual membership fee to make sure that it stays that way. Myself included.

The last MFAH director, Peter Marzio, believed that his job as a museum director was “to get as many people as I can in front of as many great works of art as I can, in a way that stimulates reflection.” (quote from a 2003 interview to USA Weekend Magazine). I love this egalitarian view, but really, it is a requirement at the MFAH. How? When the museum was established in 1917, the original Trustees required the museum to have the function of bringing “art into the everyday life of all Houstonians.” They even set it in stone: Etched into the frieze of the original classical facade of the Caroline Weiss Law building that faces Hermann park you will read: “ERECTED BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE USE OF THE PEOPLE.” Not SOME people. ALL the people. When did we get away from this? Isn’t it time to return to that original precept? If growth of the collection must be moderated somewhat, then so be it.


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