Wheel Life Experiences

The Art of the Motorcycle


Harley Davidson

Hell's Angels



(France, 1868)
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  The Art of Motorcycle
  An exhibit at the Guggenheim*

A major exhibition surveying the landscape of motorcycle design and culture, was mounted this summer at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The Wholepop Magazine Online brings you photographs of alluring bikes from the exhibition, selections from the preface to the exquisite volume that accompanied the exhibition, and audio-webcast interviews with a curator and with three visitors.

Click on a selection to hear audio webcast interviews:

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Voices of visitors to the exhibition:
Tony Colagreco, Philadelphia
Judy Riddle, Philadelphia
Paul Kelman, Boca Raton
Interview with Matthew Drutt, Associate Curator for Research:
How the exhibition came about
Logistics of the exhibition
Research behind the exhibition
Outstanding example of motorcycles as art
Significance of the motorcycle in popular culture
Is the motorcycle an American icon?
Motorcycles in film
The motorcycle as a sex object


(Germany, 1922)
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(Germany, 1923)
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(Czechoslovakia, 1925)
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(Germany, 1941)
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(United States, 1969)
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(Italy, 1998)
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From the preface to the exquisitely crafted volume that accompanied the exhibition,
The Art of the Motorcycle
by Thomas Krens, Curator
The motorcycle is a perfect metaphor for the 20th century. Invented at the beginning of the industrial age, its evolution tracks the main current of modernity. The object and its history represent the themes of technology, engineering, innovation, design, mobility, speed, rebellion, desire, love, sex, and death. For much of society, the motorcycle remains a forbidden indulgence, an object of fascination, fantasy, and anger. Park the latest Ducati, Harley, Honda, or BMW on a street corner in any city or town in the world, and a crowd will gather....
As a practical machine whose history has been one of relentless improvement and design evolution, the motorcycle as a form class at the end of the 20th century embodies its own end-game paradox. Logic and physics suggests it has reached the end of its evolutionary potential, but somehow we know that cannot be completely true. As such, however, it is a quintessential symbol of the insecurity and optimism of our time.
It seems obvious that an exhibition like The Art of the Motorcycle at the Guggenheim challenges the conventional notion of the art museum by exploiting the significantly broader framework. If the institution's original mission is interpreted as a mandate to present paintings and drawings, then motorcycles have no place on the Guggenheim's ramp. But the contemporary museum is no longer simply a sanctuary for sacred objects. The gradual changes in the substructure have been taking place for years. Like all other social institutions, the art museum has continued to evolve, responding to new directions in artistic creativity and to pressures and demands from a better informed, better educated and more demanding audience.... [There is a new and widespread] feeling that the environment has changed, that the traditional models for cultural mediation are no longer adequate, and that new, infinitely complex cultural forms and institutions are in the process of formation.
The Art of the Motorcycle, as an exhibition project, is of particular significance for the Guggenheim. Its content, context, rationale, and structure offer a multifaceted opportunity for information and interpretation. The centerpiece of the project is the precise and comprehensive survey of the history of motorcycle design expressed through 114 machines from an 1868 Michaux-Peraux, a 19th-century big-wheeled bicycle with a steam engine attached under the sea, to a 1998 MV Augusta, a sleek, Italian-designed touring machine capable of a speed of 170 miles per hour.The history of the motorcycle describes the history and evolution of the modern age. In the Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry's extraordinary installation design for the exhibition is an integral part of the experience. Recognizing the implicit potential of Frank Lloyd Wright's rotunda to express fantasies of movement and speed, Gehry has fashioned a space that is as artistically evocative and technologically savvy as the machines on display. By cladding the interior of the Guggenheim rotunda in highly reflective stainless steel, Gehry both transforms and emphasizes the essence of Wright's structure, and suggests the sensuousness and industrial elegance of motorcycle design.
Equally integral to the exhibition is this carefully crafted catalogue. The images reproduced here particularly those views of the motorcycles photographed in black and white against a minimal white background attempt to neutralize the surrounding environment and present the machines in a standardized format. The detailed entries and documentation accompanying each motorcycle in the catalogue and the exhibition have been contributed by a group of renowned motorcycle historians to support the integrity and scope of the checklist. A range of superb essays as well as nine personal and critical commentaries situate motorcycles in a broader historical context and cultural milieu, from individual experiences to the analyses of the iconic value of the motorcycle....
The Art of the Motorcycle is organized as a cultural event. The distinctions separating content from context are blurred; the exhibition becomes a contemporary creative experience that in its various richness of choices mirrors our own environment. The Art of the Motorcycle is an obvious challenge to the conventional mission of the museum to present those objects of high material culture that are authentic, unique, and grounded in tradition and history.... As a contemporary institution engaging scholarship, seriousness of purpose, traditional methodology, and considered interpretation, the Guggenheim continues it original mission. Designed as an event, and with a certain level of authority the luxury of sheer numbers of motorcycles affording a detailed and subtle presentation The Art of the Motorcycle signals the beginning of the transformation of the cultural superstructure.

All images and text are copyright of the Guggenheim Museum:


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