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The artist Julie Mehretu has unveiled the next BMW Art Car—the 20th in the German automaker’s series of contemporary art commissions—at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The sculptural automotive piece, described by Mehretu as a “performative painting”, is inspired by a work currently on show in her vast retrospective at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (Ensemble, until 6 January 2025).

“Mehretu brought the dynamism of her monumental painting Everywhen (2021-23) to the form of the BMW M Hybrid V8 with her signature multi-layered motifs, neon colours and gestural markings,” says a BMW statement. Mehretu’s customised car will head to the annual 24-Hour race of Le Mans, northwestern France, in June for its first competition.

The artist says in a statement: “I saw the BMW M Hybrid V8 in front of the finished painting in my studio and thought about what would happen if the car could move through the picture and merge with it. Now the BMW Art Car is another version of my painting and it looks like its grille has inhaled the paint.” The Art Car commission is Mehretu’s most high-profile corporate commission in more than a decade. In 2010 she unveiled her 80-ft long painting Mural in the lobby of Goldman Sachs’s headquarters in Lower Manhattan.

BMW’s Art Car Series, which launched in 1975 with Alexander Calder’s fittingly popping paint job on a BMW 3.0 CSL, has since involved many of the biggest names in contemporary art, from Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol to Jenny Holzer, David Hockney, Jeff Koons and Cao Fei. Mehretu’s immediate predecessor in the project’s driver’s seat was the late John Baldessari, in 2017. In addition to racing at Le Mans and travelling for temporary exhibitions, vehicles from the BMW Art Car series are on rotating display at the BMW Museum in Munich.

Mehretu’s Ensemble exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi is curated by Caroline Bourgeois who describes the premise in the catalogue as follows: “[The show] spans the past 25 years of her work, including some of her most recent paintings. It is punctuated by works by some of her closest friends [including Huma Bhabha, Tacita Dean and Paul Pfeiffer], artists with whom she has developed, over the years, through exchanges and collaborations, a powerful affinity.”

In an interview published in the catalogue, Bourgeois and Ethiopian-born Mehretu discuss a wide range of topics, including “questions of displacement”. Bourgeois references the important work being done by Mehretu’s social circle, saying: “your artist friends are all committed to a kind of political dimension, in the civic sense of the word, as in the Italian Renaissance—to a responsibility of art towards the community, towards the people”.

Mehretu responds that “recently Paul [Pfeiffer], Lawrence [Chua] and I have been talking about the failures of modernity and the failures of the promises that we were born into—of this new possible world. Most of us in this ensemble are of the generation that was raised during the early postcolonial moment, and we’ve dealt with the many violences that grew out of that.” Key works on show in Venice include Sun Ship (J.C.), 2018, and Revenant Maroons (2022).

Last year Mehretu set an auction record for an African-born artist when her work Walkers with the Dawnand Morning (2008) sold for $10.38m (with fees) at Sotheby’s Now Evening Auction in New York on 15 November.

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