The History of Motorcycles as Art

Indian Larry's Daddy-O
Indian Larry's Daddy-O
Timothy White

When the Guggenheim Museum in New York announced its ambitious Art of the Motorcycle show in 1998, people freaked out, and mostly not in a good way. Skeptics and purists were up in arms that motorcycles should be given the art-historical survey treatment as though they were fine art sculptures rather than design objects, which, no matter how beautiful, compelling, and evocative, were "not art" by definition. If it can do a task, it's design not art. No offense, it's just different. That was the general idea.

But regardless of your position on the design versus art debate, the motorcycle as an aesthetic object and evocative symbol of freedom, rebellion, sex appeal, etc. and narrative keystone and cultural touchstone enjoys a ubiquitous presence throughout the art world, inspiring some of the most enduring, surprising, subversive, and sexy images of our time -- including at two Los Angeles gallery exhibitions on view through the end of this week.

Ian Barry at Michael Kohn Gallery
Ian Barry at Michael Kohn Gallery

Selections from the compelling book by acclaimed photographer Timothy White on the legendary motorcycle customizer Indian Larry are up through this weekend at Project Gallery on Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood (there's also an event this Thursday, August 29 to commemorate the anniversary of his death). And the new exhibition "The White, The Black, The Kestrel" by artist Ian Barry at Michael Kohn Gallery on Beverly Blvd in West Hollywood, also through this weekend. The press release puts Barry's use of the motorcycle in a profound context, laying claim to "an exploration of symbolism, power and speed, using motorcycles as the translating mechanism," which the elegant exhibition more than lives up to.

Still from Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising
Still from Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising

Of course a lot of this celebrating subculture thing got started back in the tumultuous 1960s and 70s, when (especially French and American) cinema and popular music was getting in on the motorcycle mythology. Kenneth Anger's film Scorpio Rising from 1963 was a dark homage to the potency of those memes, conflating aspects of the occult and Catholicism with biker subculture, and expressive of a psycho-sexual hero-worship of film stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando, who were often referred to by Anger as heroic and were both, of course, known for motorcycle imagery to say the least.

Danny Lyon's Cal Elkhorn, Wisconsin (from The Bikeriders)
Danny Lyon's Cal Elkhorn, Wisconsin (from The Bikeriders)

Duncan Miller Gallery recently presented an exhibition drawn from the seminal 1968 book The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon. The artist embedded himself for four years in the daily life of the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle gang. (Check out L.A. Weekly's coverage here: Sons of Anarchy Meets Mad Men in Danny Lyon's Classic Biker Portraits).

Speaking of transcending stereotypes and pioneering progressive inroads into the cultural conversation, gay culture demigod Tom of Finland made literally hundreds of drawings in the service of a lifelong fascination with the homoeroticism and near-ritual fetishism that has been part of the biker-romance continuum ever since. It took TASCHEN two volumes to chronicle it all.

Helmut Newton's Couple with Motorcycle, 1974
Helmut Newton's Couple with Motorcycle, 1974

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Helmut Newton made this astonishingly gorgeous Polaroid in 1974 (above). Its casual but aggressively glamorous sexuality prefigured what would evolve into his signature style, as well as portraying a favorite motif to which he would repeatedly return -- semi-pornographic high-fashion nudity. As well as leopard skin underpants. And also no pants.

See also: A Helmut Newton Exhibit Shows His Photos of Sexy Women Were More Empowering Than Titillating (NSFW)

Keith Haring motorcycles, Weisman Foundation installation view
Keith Haring motorcycles, Weisman Foundation installation view

In the late 90's, Fast Art Inc. collaborated with Zephyr, Keith Haring, Dash, Futura 2000 and other well-known street artists of the time on a series of painted bikes. I rode on the Zephyr a few years ago -- it was head-turner. The Pop Art meets Street Art thing was ahead of its time in so many ways, and also so very much of its time -- that being one of game-changing art, conspicuous consumption, spectacle, adventure, and post-punk luxury items.

Seth Brown: Still from Deus Ex Machina
Seth Brown: Still from Deus Ex Machina

While already pondering this post, information came across the wires on a brand new short film Deus Ex Machina by Seth Brown, billed as "the tale of a man building the most beautiful, but most dangerous machine." The hand-crafted, analog and mechanical nature of this character-driven story and the man at the center of it hearken to the rich sepia and intense emotion of the Indian Larry pictures at Project Gallery while at the same time the single-minded focus, symbolic impact, and obsessive, object-driven craftsmanship of the story is also reminiscent of the work Ian Barry has at Kohn Gallery.

Follow @shananys and @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

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