Monterey, Calif. -- The French critic Roland Barthes once observed that the car is to the 20th century what the Gothic cathedral is to the Middle Ages -- a beautiful, complicated thing, built by faceless legions, summarizing notions of the sublime.
The view from the Lodge at Pebble Beach, taking in the contestants in this year's recently completed Concours d'Elegance vintage car show, seems to justify Barthes: Rare and exotic Pegasos, majestic Duesenbergs, Cords and Packards and Pierce-Arrows, each surrounded by a crowd hushed in holy reverie.
And yet, for an object so central to Modernity, the automobile is incidental in American fine art. No Mantegnas or Monets immortalize these basilicas. With rare exception -- here in Edward Hopper, there in Richard Estes -- the automobile has been towed off the premises of America's museums and galleries.
Ken Eberts, founder and president of the Automotive Fine Arts Society, says one reason is that art featuring automobiles descends from a tradition of advertising and technical illustration -- to aesthetes, an inferior pedigree.
Every year at the Pebble Beach Concours, his fine arts society puts on a show that brings together the nation's most respected visual artists working in the genre. And it is a gifted group, to be sure. From the harrowing detail of Dennis Fritz, to the larger-than-life insouciance of Nicola Wood, to the Norman Rockwell-like quietude of William Motta, this year's exhibition swirls in painterly virtues.
But to the art establishment, says Mr. Eberts, the society's show is a non-event. "The car is simply not accepted as a credible subject."
Not so, says Elizabeth Brown, director of the National Museum of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. She ticks off a couple of prominent examples, such as "The Elegant Automobile" exhibition two years ago at the Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, and this year's Museum of Modern Art show "Designed for Speed: Three Automobiles by Ferrari."
"There is not a prejudice against cars in the arts," says Ms. Brown.
The rap against automotive art is that it is first and foremost about the cars, or the races or the drivers represented. It lacks subtlety and imagination and vision -- it's calendar art, as surely as Vargas' pinups are.
However, there are exceptions, and this year's fine arts society exhibition suggests automotive art has lots of untapped horsepower in reserve.
The genre's biggest blind spot is its unreflective enthusiasm for the subject. In this exhibition, cars dwell in a Platonic Neverland, where dust never settles and exhaust fumes bear the scent of roses and car owners can eat off their driveways.
Consider Jay Koka's richly detailed painting of an Indian motorcycle called "Wrought Iron." Viewed in a steep upward angle, the antique motorbike's power plant is painted in nurse's white and frothy lime green at the heart of the composition. It is as technically accurate as a medical textbook illustration.
But Indian motorcycles were notorious sieves and rust buckets. Where is the oil seeping around the gaskets? Where's the creeping cancer? Mr. Koka has done what a legion of mechanics could not.
Not everyone wears so rosy a tint of glasses. Mr. Fritz's work departs at least occasionally from the genre's benevolent realm. In his "Say AHH," a truck driver pours lubricant into the crankcase of a diesel tractor. Here there is oil, and the ambient light is filtered through the gray grime of work. A bravura performance of realism, the work freezes an instant of repose in a very long day.
But for every instance of the Everyday, there are 10 altarpiece adorations of Ferrari. The honored marquee at this year's Concours d'Elegance, Ferrari holds a special fascination for automotive artists, not least because of its tradition of beauty in design. Renderings of Ferraris seem almost to be compulsory exercises.
Least interesting are the commercial images of racing. George Bartell specializes in such scenes, prismatic images of open-wheel cars in their sponsors' livery, captured in two or three aspects, with a loving (and charitable) portrait of the
famous driver hovering in the composition "Jaguar at LeMans," "Bravo Mario [Andretti]," "Enzo [Ferrari] with GTO's," "Little Al/Penske Team," and so on.
Small disasters lurk around every corner. Stanley Wanglass, a Utah sculptor working in painted bronze, produces exceptionally banal work depicting, for instance, Santa driving an antique car, or a kitschy James Dean behind the wheel of a Porsche.
One of the featured works is Dennis Hoyt's "1961 -- Tribute to Phil Hill and Ferrari" sculpture. It is a reckless, smudgy piece. Hung on a matte black abstract armature are two Ferrari racers, stretched out and ventilated to create the illusion of speed. Opposite the cars hangs a truly nightmarish head of racing great VTC Phil Hill emerging from the folds of an American flag. One viewer was overheard to say, simply, "hideous."
But there are cathedrals here, too.
William Mottal, the Newport Beach-based dean of the Automotive Fine Arts Society and long time Road and Track contributor, offers a stunning image of a Pierce-Arrow grille shimmering in the lights of a cityscape, titled "Cathedral of Lights."
The most painterly hand here belongs to Peter Hearsey of Great Britain, whose gauzy, pointillistic technique revives the subject of Great Racing Moments. His "Raceday 06 GP de L'ACF" stumbles upon a charming moment when a naked French woman looks through her window to watch the passing race cars.
And yet of all the exhibitors, there is only one who could defend her place in a major museum collection -- Ms. Wood. Born in England, educated at the Royal College of Art in London, where she won a Fulbright scholarship, Ms. Wood possesses the most original, most poetic vision.
Her style is photo-realism -- uncanny, convincing, a brush stroke of obsessive-compulsive fineness. She favors lead-sled American autos of the late '50s and early '60s, parked in the bright, eternal sunlight of Southern California.
This year, she exhibits two large pieces. One is "Red Convertible with Hand," a dramatic composition that strains at the boundary of the frame. In the foreground, seemingly at the tip of the viewer's nose, is a woman's hand, wearing a netted, fingerless black glove, holding a lipstick. In the background, another of Ms. Wood's startlingly shiny photo-istic creations, this a '59 Cadillac parked on the beach. The painting's bold abbreviation of space draws the viewer in until it seems one can smell the ocean.
Her other piece, ironically titled "Grand Hotel," depicts the entrance to a roadside hotel, lurid with neon light. It offers a harsh contrast to the warm, pure tones of the twilight sky. A long, white Cadillac convertible is pulling into the entrance. The flash of a camera freezes the car, capturing its occupants in a moment of unguarded, guilty pleasure.
These are oblique images, droll juxtapositions of subject and setting that invite the viewer to re-evaluate the object we call "car."
In Ms. Wood's work, not all cars are Ferraris, not all destinations are finish lines. Unparked from its expected surroundings and driven onto the sound stage of Ms. Wood's fanciful reality -- full of turquoise pools, flowing silk drapery, and green oceans -- automobiles seem new. That which is so familiar in life, and so uninviting in art, suddenly seems alert with possibilities.
At least, art in automotive art.