Buddha Built My Hot Rod
Issue 38 January-February 1998
Cars, art and the perfect finish
Just how finished is finished? I mean, when do you stop, never mind how you keep it that way when you decide you have actually finished? I’m thinking about finishes so good they make you want to cry. I’m thinking about the time I was in Halifax when James Turrell was building Gas Works/A Ganzfeld Sphere (1993) at the Henry Moore sculpture studios at Dean Clough. I had a 1950 Harley Davidson 45, freshly restored. It was beautiful; it was just about perfect. I needed to put miles on it, get it to run as good as it looked – and believe me it looked good. So I rode it over to Dean Clough to see how the Turrell was coming on. I arrived and stepped off the machine, putting it on the side stand with the motor just chug-a-lugging away. As I was unstrapping my helmet, James Turrell came out saying he just knew that sound had to be a vintage Harley, and we stood around talking engines, talking paint, talking about the beauty of well-made machines that drink gasoline. Then we went in and looked at his piece. It was just about a perfect day: I had burned gas, watched the sun glistening off the deep black lacquer on the petrol tank, seen some good art and talked to a good artist.
Some time later while reading Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of Robert Irwin,1 I came across a photograph entitled: ‘Robert Irwin, friend and car, c.1944’. Shot from the passenger side, it is nearly all car – an open-topped roadster – but you can see Irwin, handsome with a pompadour hair cut, at the wheel next to a beautiful unknown woman. I got to thinking about that day in Halifax, about Irwin and his car, about a conversation with John McCracken when he talked of cars as moving paint chips, suggestions for colour on wheels. I thought about LA and Bay area Zen, I thought about the kings of California custom cars – George and Sam Barris, and the maverick Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth.
The development of Hot Rods or Kustom Kars – K’s were big back then – and the development of the most significant West coast artists somehow ran along parallel lines: one was Folk Art and one was High Art. Both were born from an aesthetic of finish, and in art this was described pejoratively by New York critics as the ‘fetish finish’ school of Minimalism. The term was a bit of a misnomer: the work referred to is minimal, in that limited means of expression are used, but the so-called ‘LA look’ bears little resemblance to the Minimalism of Donald Judd, Robert Morris or Tony Smith that we associate with the term today. Of all the LA-based artists of this period only the work of McCracken can be said to cross both camps. Peter Plagens, while insisting that there was no such thing as a ‘fetish finish’ school, nonetheless provides a workable definition of the LA look: ‘generically cool, semitechnological, industrially pretty art made in and around Los Angeles in the 60s by Larry Bell, Craig Kaufman, Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Kenneth Price, John McCracken, Peter Alexander, DeWain Valentine, Robert Irwin, and Joe Goode, among others. The patented “look” was elegance and simplicity, and the mythical material was plastic, including polyester resin, which has several attractions: permanence (indoors), an aura of difficulty and technical expertise, and a preciousness (when polished) rivalling bronze or marble’.2 What distinguished work made on the West coast was not so much the materials, or even the industrial look of the work, but the degree to which the artists were involved with almost intangible qualities of polish, surface effect and colour, focussing at a deeper level on phenomenological and perceptual issues. It was about light: light bouncing off, penetrating, being absorbed by surfaces, about the way light is perceived. Quite where this obsession came from is open to debate but one thing is certain, Hot Rods had a lot to do with it.
This is Irwin talking about his 1939 Ford: ‘Well, I finally got that car finished. I had twenty coats of ruby-red maroon on the dash, and I had this great finish outside. The car was absolutely hunky-dory. Twenty coats of ruby-red maroon, let me tell you, to paint the dash: that means taking everything out, all the instruments and everything, painting it, building up these coats very slowly, spraying the lacquer. It was just a very exaggerated thing’.3 There is behind the work of all these artists something unique, a serious aesthetic concern that has largely been overshadowed by what we might term East Coast Minimalism. The most often quoted example of the difference between the New York approach and the attitude of LA comes again from Irwin when he describes an altercation between himself and a New York art critic. The scene was set by the critic’s dismissal of Billy Al Bengston’s interest in racing motorcycles, which he saw as a superficial and suicidal self-indulgence. They began to argue about folk art, which from the critic’s perspective was a question of pots and weaving. Irwin felt differently: ‘As far as I’m concerned, a folk art is when you take a utilitarian object, something you use everyday and you give it overlays of your own personality, what you feel and so forth. You enhance it with your life’.4 To prove his point Irwin drove the critic out to see a young Hot Rodder who was selling a car and a motorcycle to finance his next project:
The ‘32 he was getting rid of was an absolute cherry. But what was more interesting, and which I was able to show this critic, was that here was this ‘29, absolutely dismantled, I mean completely apart, and the kid was making decisions about the frame, whether or not he was going to cad plate certain bolts or whether he was going to buff grind them, or whether he was just going to leave them raw as they were. He was insulating and soundproofing the doors, all kinds of things that no one would ever know or see unless they were truly a sophisticate in the area. But, I mean, real aesthetic decisions, truly aesthetic decisions. Here was a kid who wouldn’t know art from schmart, but you couldn’t talk about a more real aesthetic activity than what he was doing, how he was carefully weighing: What was the attitude of this whole thing? What exactly? How should it look? What was the relationship in terms of its machinery, its social bearing, everything? I mean, all these things were being weighed in terms of the aesthetics of how the thing should look. It was a perfect example.
The critic simply denied it. Simply denied it: not important, unreal, untrue, doesn’t happen, doesn’t exist. See, he comes from a world in New York where the automobile… I mean, automobiles are ‘What? Automobile? Nothing’. Right? I mean no awareness, no sensitivity, no involvement. So he simply denied it: ‘It doesn’t exist’. Like that; ‘Not an issue’. Which we argued about a little on the way back over the Sepulveda pass.
I said, ‘How can you deny it? You may not be interested, but how can you deny it? I mean, there it is, full blown, right in front of you, and it’s obviously folk art!’
Anyway, he said, ‘no no’.
So I finally just stopped the car and made him get out. I just flat left him there by the road, man, and just drove off. Said, ‘See you later Max’.5
So, if Hot Rods were important in the development of East coast ‘fetish finish’ Minimalism, what was their aesthetic? It was an aesthetic based on speed, on racing, an aesthetic that would, over the years, develop into baroque extravagance. It all started because of LA’s close proximity to the dry lake beds located in the Antelope Valley of the Mojave Dessert: Muroc Dry Lake, Harper Dry Lake, and El Mirage Dry Lake. It was possible to drive from LA to one of the dry lakes in a little under two and a half hours, and in the early 30s that’s exactly what the Hop Up crowd did (Hot Rod is a later term dating from 1945).6 They stripped the cars of all superfluous metal, tuned their engines to the limit, mixed and matched parts from different models, built special body work – anything as long as it made them faster. But the cars were not just for racing: they were to go to work in, to court girls in. Irwin’s early reminiscences give an indication of the peculiarly intense significance of the car in LA’s youth culture of the time. From this a whole mythology was born, one that Hollywood soon exploited in lurid B movies like: Hot Rod Hullabaloo, Teenage Thunder, Hot Car Girl and Drag Strip Riot. In the post-war years the Hop Up scene rapidly developed from a do-it-yourself, back street racing activity to the basis for an entire industry supplying go-faster goodies: tuning and engine building services, body shops, upholsterers, paint shops and pin stripers. If you’ve got the hottest car on 38the block you want it to look good, and then all the other kids want a car that looks that good too. If you were a young man in LA in the 50s you needed a car that told your peers who you were. The whole custom car thing was about charisma, about attracting girls, about style and sex:
There were three, maybe four categories. One was like ‘go’. You built the thing – like the Cat and the Mole, they built things that were just rat-assed, but, boy, they went like a son of a bitch. The body could be almost falling off, you’d be sitting in an egg crate, but everything was in the engine, and that was very sanitary. Then there was ‘go-and-show’, which was like a car that went real good but wasn’t necessarily going to be in a class with the Cat and the Mole, but it would look just fine. It was a case of taking a car that was a classic model and then just doing the few right things with it to accentuate why it was a classic model, building it up to absolutely cherry condition. Then there was ‘show’, and then there were like ‘pussy wagons,’ which were strictly kind of like Chicano cars are now: lowered way down, everything exaggerated, blue lights under the fenders. Angora socks bobbing in the windows, seats that tilt back, all that sort of bad taste, which has now achieved almost the level of a profession.7
This was how Irwin described the main styles of Hot Rod. The category he worked at was go-and-show – the class with the tightest and most stringently controlled aesthetic, in which detail and finish counted most. It is possible for the uninitiated to look at such cars and not really be able to see the difference between the custom car and the stock model. But on a second glance it becomes apparent that all the external chrome work has been removed, door handles included, that the number plates are actually set into the body, even the fittings around the lights have gone, or been ‘frenched’. Finally there will be the paint job, layer upon layer of polished lacquer you could drown in. Inside and out, the whole car has been subtly modified, and it was this aesthetic that informed the ‘fetish finish’ school of Minimalism.
From the profession that grew out of the more extravagant urges of this folk art, three great figures emerged. Firstly George and Sam Barris, the Kings of Kustomizing, who are probably best known for their movie cars – they built the first Bat Mobile in just three weeks during 1964 by converting the Lincoln Futura dream car of 1955. They also built the Munster Koach and Drag-u-la for the now cult classic TV series The Munsters. The Barris brothers started as a body shop servicing the desires of the Hot Rod crowd, built bodies for and sponsored dry lake racers before moving onto the show car circuit, building special cars for film, TV and the stars. As Zsa Zsa Gabor said ‘My Rolls-Royce would not be royalty unless coachbuilt by you, George Barris’.8 The third great customiser was Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, who started out as a pin striper and then moved on to the show circuit with a series of wild, outrageous cars. The most famous of these was The Beatnik Bandit, which started life as a project for Rod & Custom Magazine. Roth was one of the first to realise the potential of the new polyester resins, building the form of the car from plaster then pulling a glass fibre body from moulds of the original. With its perspex bubble top formed by Roth in a pizza oven, The Beatnik Bandit was an out and out show car in a style partly derived from the custom aesthetic and partly from the dream cars of the General Motors Motoramas. Roth was a grass roots customiser, deeply involved in the motorcycle scene and a legend in his own time, but making his living mainly from the sale of hand-made T-shirts featuring his cartoon creation ‘Rat-Fink’ and through licensing his car designs to the Revell plastic model company. If the Barris Brothers epitomised the high end of the craft, Roth was its wild side, dirty, dangerous and unpredictable. Irwin saw this as folk art in the 50s, but by the late 60s it was far more than some regional aberration: the custom car was an integral part of American folklore.
While Irwin has been the most vocal, many other artists who grew up in California gave their experiences of customising cars and motorcycles greater credence than their formal art school training. It was an aesthetic that they carried with them and which they built into their respective practices as artists. James Turrell, however, although involved in intense discussions with Irwin around 1968, which led to the latter inviting him to collaborate on his Art and Technology project at the Garret Aerospace Corporation, took a somewhat different approach. While making it clear that he was never involved with the Hot Rod aesthetic, in the late 60s and early 70s he earned a living restoring vintage cars and aeroplanes. And he has acknowledged that the fanatical attention to detail, to getting everything just right – ‘sanitary’ to use the Hot Rod term – involved in such restorations, led him to dispense with the object altogether.9 His work thus became no longer a matter of light bouncing off surfaces into the eye, but simply light itself. What the involvement with cars, motorcycles and planes gave to these artists was the desire, the will and the discipline of going that extra distance to seek perfection. There was a kind of Pacific Rim Zen in these activities – changed from its Japanese origins, modified in the bright post-war California sun. The quiet contemplation of lacquer during the tea ceremony converted into a meticulous concern for paint surfaces and car parts, into a contemplation of the infinite qualities of light as a metaphysic peculiar to the West coast.
There was probably only a short period when the Artists and the Hot Rodders had something in common, a period from the late 50s to the early 60s. After this the Artists and the Kar Kustomizers went their separate ways: one following a tight philosophical approach expressed with minimal means, the other moving towards a wild, Baroque extravagance with giddy displays of skill and decoration that has now almost atrophied into a tradition – which is exactly what one would expect to happen to a folk art.
So, what of finish? It’s a matter of degrees. It’s a matter of the amount of labour and concentration you are able to put into one thing – it’s about how much you care and who is going to notice. In the world of customising and vintage restoration everyone is looking at the details: if you over-restore and go too far, or don’t get it just right, there is no way you’ll get away with it. You’ll just have to go back and do it again. In art there’s a notion that a finished piece is just that – finished, fixed for all time. It’s a convenient but false notion. Works of art sometimes need fixing too. Turrell’s Gas Works… was unfinished when I first saw it: just a huge impressive sphere standing in the front space of Dean Clough. I got back on the old 45 and rode home. If I have any regret at all it is that I should have offered Turrell a ride. The bike was in absolutely cherry condition and he knew a good machine when he saw one. Some time later I got to take a ride in his machine. The team slid me into it on a kind of trolley and closed the door. I just lay there and saw the light, a light unlike any I’d seen before. It was a light that was not so much in front of my eyes as behind them. The outside of Turrell’s machine was impressive enough but was nothing in comparison to what went on inside. It wasn’t built for show, it wasn’t even show and go, it was the Cat and the Mole: everything was in the engine.
1. Lawrence Wescheler, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a life of contemporary artist Robert Irwin, University of California Press, Berkeley. Los Angeles, 1982.
2. Peter Plagens, quoted in Craig Alcock, James Turrell, The Art of Light and Space, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, p.50
3. Lawrence Wescheler, Op. cit., p.16
4. Lawrence Wescheler, Op. cit., p.17
5. Ibid. p.18
6. Dean Batchelor, The American Hot Rod, Motorbooks International, Osceola, 1995, p.8
7. Lawrence Wescheler, Op. cit., p.13
8. George Barris and David Fetherston, Barris TV & Movie Cars, Motorbooks International, Osceola, 1996, p.83
9. Craig Alcock, James Turrell, The Art of Light and Space,
Op. cit., p.53
Written by Edward Allington for www.frieze.com
Link to article Buddha Built My Hot Rod