Art on Wheels – Roy Lichtenstein and the BMW

I have always been passionate about automobiles, and there is nothing I like more than discussing them. I’ve also always had a passion for German makes, particularly BMWs. My first “a-ha” moment (thank you, Oprah) was my aunt’s stunning Austin Healy Sprite. It was a striking shade of red, with a leather camel-colored interior. Those headlights, chrome everywhere, and wire wheels – I was mesmerized!  This class, Art 1100, is prompting me to question what art appeals to me, and which artists, if any, have captured my attention. The answer, it turns out, is easy – Roy Lichtenstein.

The BMW 3 Series has always been my favorite model. Over the course of a few years, I saw my neighbor own three successive models, from a BMW 2002, to an ice-blue 3 series, to a railroad crossing signal red 320i. I liked the simplicity of the design. Race track models (not available for sale) offered an over-exaggerated look of the 3 series.

Everything changed when I first saw Roy Lichtenstein’s take on the exact same race track model. It captured my attention like nothing else, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.  I eventually realized that Lichtenstein’s use of black dots, and broad yellow and black strokes represented the sun and a highway, perhaps the Autobahn (look carefully under the driver’s side door). On the top of the car, notice the green and black depiction of a mountain (the Black Forest?). The long strokes of blue are, I believe, the sky, and the streaks of green and black look like what I might see out of the corners of my eyes at a high rate of speed. This is moving art! It was then that I started to read more about Roy Lichtenstein and the work he was doing.

The first picture is the BMW 3 series that I could have purchased in 1977 (if I had had the money) at a BMW dealership.


The second picture is the BMW series 3 race car as painted (on commission from BMW) by Roy Lichtenstein.


Roy Lichtenstein was born in New York City in 1923, and he died in 1997.  He was a “pop artist,” like Andy Warhol, and he was inspired, it seems, by comic book art and comic strips.

When I first began to look at Lichtenstein’s art, I was struck by his use of dots. As I read more about him, and even attended an exhibition of his art at the Art Institute of Chicago, I learned that he was mimicking the Ben-Day printing process (think: dot-matrix printer). This process was used as well in comic books of the 50s and 60s because dots overlapped in the four process colors (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) could inexpensively create shading and other colors, such as green, purple, and orange.

This is one of Lichtenstein’s most famous pieces, Drowning Girl.


I do have questions about Drowning Girl.

  • What does the caption mean? Something very dramatic has happened, it seems, to get to this point – but what is it that happened!?
  • Why did Lichtenstein choose to make the girl’s hair blue? Is she actually drowning in water (unlikely, I think, as if she were she would hardly be able to call Brad anyway). So is she drowning in her own emotional turmoil? Her own bed sheets? A Dream? Is she drowning at all? She looks to me as if she is sleeping, almost in a fetal position, rather than drowning in turbulent water.

I found the picture for use here in Wikipedia. I saw it in person at the Art Institute exhibit, and the reproduction here does not do it justice. It actually is much more bright and bold, and close inspection reveals the extraordinary use of dots. (As this course progresses, I would like to learn more about pointillism.)

There is MUCH information about Lichtenstein on the Web, and one of the best sources is

Al Garcia

22 thoughts on “Art on Wheels – Roy Lichtenstein and the BMW

  1. Thank you for the post AL. I have always liked the style of BMW automobiles too. I think it has to do with the front end styling that just gives their cars a look of being in motion, even when parked. I looked up a larger picture of the Series 3 with the custom paint job and there is so much detail just in the one view I’m sure I didn’t get it all.
    As to Drowning Girl, I also am wondering who Brad is. From the caption alone I get the idea that he is a real S.O.B.

  2. I never realized how much art goes into designing cars before. I suppose I have always just seen cars as a convenient source of transportation, but it’s fascinating to know that a pop artist designed cars with such attention to aesthetics as any other artist creating any other piece.
    As for Drowning Girl, I believe she is “drowning” in her own tears. She seems very distraught, and it’s as if her only savior is the source of her despair (A break-up, maybe?). Her hair I believe is blue as a representation of her mood.

  3. Although I’ve never personally been intrigued by cars before this post makes me appreciate the art of designing them. The second picture of the BMW with the black, yellow and white stripes reminds me of a zebra. It’s nice.
    As for the drowning girl, I believe that she is distressed over her ex-lover Brad. She is saying “I’d rather sink than call Brad for help” therefore she’s saying that she’d rather herself go through her problem alone rather than to go to someone that assumingly hasn’t always been there for her. She also seems to be drowning in her own tears because her emotions are overpowering. The whole piece seems very blue to me. For some people blue is associated with depression and sadness so I believe that it just reflects her mood.

  4. Cars on there own are a work of art. But when you go into the details of strokes on this bmw. It can truly redefine the way you think of cars. Roy The artist has created a comicboox by imitating the originals means of his production. Keyline, and brush script.

  5. I think it is so interesting how his cars went from simply functional vehicles to pieces of art.
    I think perhaps the Drowning Girl is upset, and she is overwhelmed with life, which is why she is drowning, but she is independent and does not want to ask Brad for help. However, I don’t know what Brad did to make her drown on her own.

  6. I love this post because I had NO idea that Lichtenstein worked on cars–it initially seemed like such a departure from his “typical” work. He is a pop artist and, as we’ll see, deals with consumerism through the style and subject of his work. Through that lens, using a car as a canvas for his works makes a little more sense to me. I’m a little jealous I didn’t get to see it in person!

  7. I never thought that cars would have something to do with art. This post made me realize how art can be every where. I think next time i look at something i’ll try to figure if there is some form of art present in it. And yeah the cars do look very nice. I really appreciate your thought and way of observing automobiles 🙂

  8. Being a big fan of BMW myself, I found this post to be very interesting. This is the first time I have ever heard of Roy Lichtenstein. It’s fascinating to see an artist take such a classic car and use it as his own personal canvas.

    When I first saw ‘Drowning Girl’, it instantly reminded me of a pair of ‘Naked and Famous’ jeans. After doing a bit of research, the logo for their denim brand is inspired by 1950’s pop art by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

  9. I’ve always enjoyed the styles of cars and how they can come up with new ideas and design ideas over the years. Some I like more than others, but I’ve always thought the classics show an individual personality that is easier to identify.
    Anyways, aside from that, I do truly feel that the Drowning Girl is about drowning in your feelings. You could have so many emotions overwhelm you that it makes you want to curl up and just try to push them away. Or just to push away the hurt. You talk to yourself about “how you don’t care” or put the blame on someone else. Anything to just push away the pain. Except the emotions are still there, and the memories and problems don’t go away. Then just when you think you can push them away long enough to go to sleep, you realize that it doesn’t help either. Sometimes that’s when you cry about it, sometimes it’s when you’re in denial about it. This was how I looked at the picture due to my experience of dealing with certain overwhelming emotions the same way or a friend of mine who goes through the same thing.

  10. What I see in the Drowning Girl picture is a girl drowning in the emotional turmoil of a relationship issue. I say this because I believe that the caption, “Id rather sink than call Brad” is stating she is very upset with Brad and the tears in her eyes show us she is grieving. It also looks like she is laying down and the the raging water is symbolic of what is running through her head and the emotions she can not bear.

  11. I think that Lichtenstein style of art is really creative and interesting. Its amazing that his paintings are created by dots not bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. From looking at his painting, at least through a computer i would have never guess that they are created simply by dots. As from Drowning girl, this painting could have many meanings. Its obvious that there is water in the back ground but it could just be there to emphasize the drowning part. I believe that she is drowning in her own emotions and the cause of those emotions are Brad who she wishes to never have contact or thoughts of again.

  12. I’m also a car person. Ive never really been to fond of BMW though, I am more of an American muscle and truck kinda guy myself. But maybe a 335i coupe would be a little fun to drive and the art on the racer was pretty neat. Its amazing how much thought went behind that paint job. In Drowning Girl picture, i think it was real water and brad must of pushed her into that pool.

  13. The first thing that comes to mind when talking about art and cars was an experience I had while visiting relatives in California, someone had decorated their car by gluing random knick-knacks to their car, even little toy army men. They told me it was common for people to do this just for the fun of it I guess. I decided to look it up and came across this blog site:

    there’s even a BMW page with an “operation BMW art car” you can play operation on the hood:

    Didn’t realize that “art cars” as they’re calling them were such a big thing, they are cool though. I’m glad this made me look them up, thanks Al!

  14. Very interesting Although I am no car aficianado, I do find the lines and body styling of some cars breathtaking…..especially the old-school 60’s “muscle cars”. They just take you back to another era. Ironically, that is the same era that Drowning Girl is from. That was an era that most of us just don’t have a frame of reference for in 2013. Women at that time deferred to their husbands or brothers or fathers to help them make decisions and/or to solve problems. I am not sure if “Brad” had anything to do with why the girl was crying at all. It think he is just the man in the relationship and by not asking for his help I think she is being portrayed as strong enough to make her own decisions and suffer any negative consequences by herself. However, she is still being portrayed as “weak” because she is crying her eyes out…..Not sure if this is pro-women’s rights or against or both…but it is an interesting comic and visually pretty cool looking.

  15. Looking at Roy Lichtenstein’s work on the BMW I immediately thought of the movie series The Fast and Furious. The detail of the body work and the painting kit that he used on the BMW leads you to believe that its a sports car used for street racing. I always wondered what materials they used for the body kits that they add on to these cars.

    As to the drowning girl I have a million interpretations of this piece of artwork. In my opinion the strongest interpretation is that the drowning girl is drowning in the lies of Brad. She has had enough of his lying thats why she would neglect his help. I believe that her hair is blue because blue represents loyalty. She has been such a loyal spouse over the years and now she’s just drowning in his lies.

  16. I have always been a car guy myself and have always approved of the german made designs. BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Audi have always been in my top 10 cars to own. Today it seems the car to own is either an Audi or either a BMW or Mercedes. These cars are not only gorgeous but they are icons of wealth and flawless engineering.
    One thing i have noticed now that i have learned more about art, is that mercedes in particular uses lines to create an illusion of speed. If you look at a Mercedes Benz at rest, the car still looks like it is somewhat moving. This is due to the structure of its lines along the car. You will see a line running from the lower front of the vehicle to the upper rear which moves your eyes in such a way that it looks like the car is in motion. One car that shows these “lines of motion” is the Mercedes Benz McLaren.,d.b2I&psig=AFQjCNE17esG5GoKCHBSnoMmW1vTKOdt-A&ust=1379086932402341

  17. I, like many of our other classmates, have not been particularly interested in cars or the way they’re made or the art and design that goes into making them.. quite honestly, I could care less. When I look at cars I associate them with the way they look and if they can get me from point A to point B. I just don’t have an interest in the details. But this post really opened my eyes to the appreciation people have for the art that goes into designing these cars. That being said, thank you for the post!

  18. I have never really been a car fan myself and I never understood why my friends took such an interest in cars. It always made me wonder what I didn’t see and what they saw. Your explanation on how you view cars and how they really do have a certain beauty to them make me look at cars in a different way now. I never knew that there was such beauty in cars, and want to thank you for showing me a way to look at cars and see the true beauty in it. Truly magnificent pictures.

  19. I’ve always been a huge car fan. It is truly incredible how Roy’s canvas is in itself an artwork. The precision and meticulousness taken when creating a car like a BMW is overwhelming, but to take a car already at the pinnacle of an industry and create something even more beautiful is truly impressive.

  20. I believe the coloring in the Drowning Girl is interesting. I think her hair was made blue because it signifies sadness, along with the rest of the picture is a shade of blue. I believe she may be cry because of a broken heart or maybe a failed job that she may not want to confess to.
    I also found the art on the BMW’s very cool. I wouldn’t mind having one.

  21. It’s nice to see that we can see art anywhere. So far taking this class is opening my mind to see art further the just a work art. Cars have never been my interest, but I must say that I’m impress, especially with the use of pointillism.

    My interpretation of the drowning girl image all comes down to emotion. It looks like she’s drowning in her emotions. Her face expressions show that she’s emotionally hurt and it might be and ex-lover according to the caption.

  22. To be quite honest, I have never really thought about how much art and creativity goes into the design of cars. I mean I new designs were from creative people, but I never really appreciated it before. The drowning girl picture is interesting as well, the colors seem to reflect the meaning of the picture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s