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Toledo Museum of Art presents first exhibition to focus on car culture with emphasis on the Midwest
Stuart Davis (American, 1892–1964), Landscape with Garage Lights. Oil on canvas, 1931–32. 32 x 41 7/8 in. (81.2 x 106.4). Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York: Marion Stratton Gould Fund. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York.

TOLEDO, OH.- The rise of the automobile as a popular visual symbol of American culture is being explored in Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture. The exhibition features approximately 125 works of art in a wide variety of media – including painting, sculpture, photography, film, prints and drawings – and a diversity of artists and perspectives, drawn from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art along with important loans from many other North American institutions. The exhibition is on view June 15-Sept. 15, 2019, at TMA, the exclusive U.S. venue.

This project is the first U.S. exhibition to provide an inclusive, historical overview of artists inspired by American car culture with an emphasis on the Midwest region. Mapped across four thematic focal points, Life is a Highway brings together a diverse selection of 20th-century artists who chronicle the automobile’s role in reshaping the American landscape and cultural attitudes of self-expression.

Life Is a Highway is curated by Robin Reisenfeld, Ph.D., TMA’s works on paper curator.

“Located in one of the nation’s and the Midwest’s leading manufacturing centers, The Toledo Museum of Art is uniquely positioned to organize this groundbreaking look at the impact and iconography of the automobile in American visual culture,” said Brian Kennedy, TMA’s Edward Drummond and Florence Scott Libbey director. “TMA also serves as the arts centerpiece of Toledo’s thriving cultural community, and Life Is A Highway continues the Museum’s sustained commitment to engaging our visitors in new and creative ways through our exhibitions and educational offerings.”

As a key element of the postwar boom economy of the 1950s, the automobile quickly became a symbol of freedom, individualism, renewal and middle-class prosperity. Its mythic status is being examined across social, aesthetic, environmental and industrial dimensions with images that both celebrate and critique its legacy.

Life is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture presents the multifaceted approaches visual artists have taken towards car culture. Each generation has experienced a changing dynamic with cars, with visual artists uniquely positioned to capture and examine that evolving relationship. Thematic groupings explore the emergence of car culture, the on-the- road experience, automobility’s imprint upon the environment and its use as a signifier of wealth, status and cultural identity.

“The rich spectrum of artists and media in the exhibition represents the intensity of our experiences with the automobile over time and our evolving relationship to it as a symbol of social change. As an immersive treatment of the visual culture of automobiles, this exhibition ensures there will be something for everyone to discover and enjoy in the galleries,” said Reisenfeld.

Early depictions of automobiles include works by the American Scene artists and Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers Thomas Hart Benton, Walker Evans, Charles Sheeler, John Sloan and Margaret Bourke-White along with the more familiar Pop and photorealists Robert Bechtle, Jim Dine, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. Modern and contemporary paintings and installations by John Baeder, Roger Brown, John Chamberlain, Judy Chicago, Kerry James Marshall, George Segal and Richard Prince are featured, among others. The work of performance artist and automotive designer Liz Cohen is on view together with photography, early video and works on paper by Edward Burtynsky, Jonathan Calm, Robert Frank, William Gedney, Alfred Leslie, Mary Ellen Mark, Catherine Opie, Gordon Parks, Oscar Fernando Gómez Rodríguez and Meridel Rubenstein, among others.

A uniquely Midwestern perspective
Car culture is an inextricable part of the Midwest’s identity, closely associated with its livelihood, labor and community. A significant portion of Toledo’s economy has been related to the automotive industry since the beginning of the 20th century. It is the home of two production facilities known as the Toledo Complex, an automobile factory that began assembling Willys-Overland vehicles as early as 1910. Since 1940, Jeeps have been assembled in the plant, which is now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Powertrain Toledo, a General Motors (GM) transmission factory, was founded in 1916 and has been the production site for many of GM’s transmissions.

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