Andy Warhol Once Made Art For Mercedes-Benz

Petersen Automotive Museum is now displaying Cars, an unfinished art collection which Mercedes-Benz commissioned to Andy Warhol in 1986

Most of us usually make much different associations with Andy Warhol. Marilyn Monroe’s famous portrait, Campbell’s soup can, Coca-Cola bottles… There is also his signature use of bright primary colors in several different combinations. None of that has direct relation with cars but, fortunately, that was not a problem. That is what the Petersen Automotive Museum is now showing in the Andy Warhol: CARS exhibition.

As it turns out, Warhol’s very last work was a Mercedes-Benz commission. The automaker was celebrating its centennial in 1986 and planned a collection with 20 car models featured in 80 screen prints. Sadly, that work never came to a conclusion because Warhol eventually passed in 1987. The museum brought 49 of those works along with select Mercedes-Benz cars to create the exhibition that motivated this article.

1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)
1954 Mercedes-Benz 300SL (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)

Who was Andy Warhol?

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, USA, Warhol began his career as a commercial illustrator. Over the years, he drew attention to himself as a whole, not only for his work. He would not conform to gender stereotypes, and shed light on people who were heavily ostracized by society. Parallel to that, he developed a unique art style which gave a contemporary interpretation to timeless icons, whether products or celebrities.

Andy Warhol at Studio 54 in New York City, October 1981.
Andy Warhol at Studio 54 in New York City, October 1981.

Warhol was also famous for being mysterious regarding his personal life. However, “implicit” would be a more accurate definition. While he avoided direct responses in interviews, his works expressed his views and tastes quite clearly. A common opinion from acquaintances is that he kept a strong public image that was much different from his real self. His sexuality, for example, has not been fully understood yet. Another distinctive trait is that Warhol has works of many types, including an art car that was part of BMW’s famous project on the matter.

Even though Warhol passed 35 years ago, his life and art still fascinate many people. His paintings, above all, always sell for large sums at auctions. Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, for example, traded hands at a Christie’s auction on last May for $195 million. According to Motor Trend, the Cars collection has only entirely gone on display two other times. First in 1988 in Tubingen, Germany, then only in 2010 in Vienna, Austria.

Andy Warhol pictures and the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)
1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)

Which Warhol works are there?

Mercedes-Benz hired the artist because of his well-known art style and that is what it got. We can observe many mosaics with the same car depicted in different colors with a contrasting flat background. The 1901 Daimler Mylord coupé is one of the few cars to appear only once on the screen. The 1886 Daimler Motor Carriage and the 1925 Mercedes-Benz Type 400 Tourenwagen are also present, among many others.

Some of the Andy Warhol screens at the exhibition (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)
Some of the screens at the exhibition (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)

The fact that the collection features mostly classic models just makes it more interesting. Those cars went on sale at a time when automobiles as a whole were still new. In the early 20th century, they were a luxury product that only a few could afford. That gave them an aristocratic image that completely changed over time. Depicting them much later, in the mid-1980s, under Warhol’s style produced a unique contrast.

If you hold on to that concept, you will notice that we can extend it. Mercedes-Benz as a whole has always been famous for its refined work and vintage image. Warhol, on the other hand, established his image by portraying the “iconography of the everyday”, as the event page says. Any type of collaboration between those brands would have the potential to create a contrast strong enough to be impossible to overlook.

Vintage Mercedes-Benz racing car (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)
Vintage Mercedes-Benz racing car (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)

What Mercedes-Benz cars are there?

Some of them are timeless icons. There is a replica of the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen, which is just the very first automobile ever created. You will also find the Motorized Carriage, which was Daimler’s first car. The former sold only around 25 units, from which only one has survived. While Mercedes-Benz keeps that single unit at its museum, there are many replicas which are accurate enough to sell for around $70,000.

1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 Grand Prix (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)
1937 Mercedes-Benz W125 Grand Prix (credit: Justin Banner for Motor Trend)

The exhibition also features racing cars such as the 1937 W125 Grand Prix. It is widely known for reaching the podium 21 times in one season (with six wins). Besides, most of its body makes room for its huge 5.6L engine. As usual in Mercedes-Benz events, there is also the 1954 300 SL whose gull-wing doors have made it unmistakable. Besides, it was the first sports car the company produced after the Second World War.

Last, but not least, you can see the 1970 C111-II experimental vehicle. The external design is a great case of the Italian wedge trend. However, some units were even more surprising for using a rotary engine long before Mazda made it famous in cars. Whether the actual cars or their depictions in pop-art style caught your eye, the Andy Warhol: Cars exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to see art work in a unique way.

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