A fine art exhibition doesn't often elicit reactions like, "Dude, that is badass!" Then again, most fine art exhibitions don't get to feature pieces like Steve McQueen's original 1957 Jaguar XK-SS Roadster.
"McQueen called it the 'Green Rat,'" guest curator Ken Gross says of the sexy specimen of automotive technology, which the actor painted British racing green. "When I was at the Petersen (Automotive) Museum in L.A., I was lucky enough to be the person who bought this car for the museum, so I've actually driven it quite a bit," he continues with a distinctly satisfied grin on his face.
This was just one of many automotive minutiae culled from the astoundingly knowledgeable Gross as he showed me around the new exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, The Allure of the Automobile. Gross, the former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, originally curated the exhibit at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta last year. The Portland version of the exhibition opened to the public on Saturday, June 11, and features 16 cars—two less than the original exhibit (due to space) but with five different automobiles.
"The basic premise was to select automobiles from what we call the 'Golden Age of the Automobile'—the '30s through the early '60s. It was a time when there really were no restrictions on safety, on emissions; it was all about style," explains Gross.
But before you write the exhibit off as just a classic car show, know that you have probably never seen cars like this before. It's like watching Planet Earth and learning that there are six-foot salamanders living under the ice of frozen rivers in China. How did you not know something like this existed? And like those endangered salamanders, several of the cars featured in the exhibition represent the last remaining example of their style.
"Many of our cars are one-of-a-kind or one of a very small series," says Gross. "Every one has a wonderful story, either about the person who designed it or the person who purchased it. A lot of the cars we have from the 1930s were really fully custom automobiles."
The Duesenberg SJ Convertible simply exudes social status—a car driven by the likes of Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and candy magnate Philip K. Wrigley. "It has a 320 horsepower engine, so it's a really powerful car that reflected the fact that Duesenberg had been a successful racing car. They were the best America had to offer in the 1930s and equal to anything else in the world. These cost about $20,000 in 1931 when a Model A Ford cost about $500," Gross explains. "You've heard the expression, 'It's a doozy'? Well that's a doozy. That's where it comes from."
Not only are the back stories intriguing—ranging from the outrageous to the scandalous—but the cars themselves are a bizarre and beautiful sight to behold, with futuristic curves and structures that belie their age. From the 1937 Dubonnet Hispano-Suiza, which looks more like a flying saucer than something meant to be driven on the road, to the nearly angle-less 1939 Talbot-Lago, which the French called goutte d'Eau (drop of water), the parallels drawn with artistic movements of the time, such as Art Moderne, seem perfectly accurate.
"You just don't have cars with this level of craftsmanship anymore, and we'll never have them again," says Gross. "They can't build anything like this (today) because of safety regulations and expense. But I hope people come and they look at these cars and think, 'wow.' They belong in a fine art museum."
SEE IT: The Allure of the Automobile is at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811, portlandartmuseum.org. Tickets $15 for adults, $12 for students or seniors, free to museum members. Closes September 11.