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BMW unveils its latest 'Art Car,' courtesy of abstract artist Julie Mehretu

Julie Mehretu stands alongside the 20th BMW Art Car which she designed. (BMW Group/News Aktuell via AP) Julie Mehretu stands alongside the 20th BMW Art Car which she designed. (BMW Group/News Aktuell via AP)
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Over the past 50 years, artists including Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Jenny Holzer and Robert Rauschenberg have been chosen by the luxury car company to use a BMW as their canvas, each adorning one of the famous BMW Art Cars in their signature style.

Ethiopian-American artist Julie Mehretu, known for her work in abstract painting, was chosen last year to create the company’s newest ‘Art Car.’ Her artwork, painted on a BMW M Hybrid V8, was recently unveiled at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and will be on the track at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race next month.

The BMW M Hybrid V8, a plug-in hybrid, is a track-only racing car created to compete in the international endurance racing circuit. Designed and engineered in collaboration with the Italian race car manufacturer Dallara, it’s low and wide with an enormous rear wing and a large vertical rudder.

For the commission, which marks the 20th BMW Art Car, Mehretu chose to adapt one of her most famous works: The painting “Everywhen,” which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The painting — and the car — are covered in broad washes color cut through with broad black streaks and lines.

“In the studio where I had the model of the BMW M Hybrid V8 I was just sitting in front of the painting and I thought: What would happen if this car seemed to go through that painting and becomes affected by it,” Mehretu said in a statement. “The idea was to make a remix, a mash-up of the painting. I kept seeing that painting kind of dripping into the car.”

The first BMW Art Car was painted in 1975 by the American sculptor Alexander Calder after French racing driver Hervé Poulain brought the idea to BMW. Poulain drove the Calder-painted BMW 3.0 CSL at Le Mans that year. In 1977, Roy Lichtenstein covered a BMW 320 Group 5 in the graphic stripes and dots he was renowned for; Warhol painted a BMW M1 in 1979 with textured, pastel brushstrokes.

The first woman to take on a BMW Art Car was South African artist Esther Mahlangu, who in 1991 painted a 525i sedan. In 1996, Holzer covered a BMW Le Mans race car in the words “Protect Me From What I Want,” among other provocative phrases.

Mehretu’s practice frequently draws inspiration from architecture and busy urban settings, featuring intricate juxtapositions of lines and shapes — inspired by technical drawings and building plans — and, sometimes, splashes of color or deep darkness. Her work has also addressed themes such as migration, colonialization and globalization.

Critics often highlight the sense of humanity apparent in her innovative, abstract works. There’s movement and complex emotion. Mehretu is best known for large-scale pieces, like an eighty-foot-long mural she created for the lobby of the Goldman Sachs building in Manhattan. It’s busy and bright with colored shapes overlaying dark straight lines; the red, yellow, blue and green forms appear to be actively shooting out across the huge wall. Other works, like “Mogama (A Painting in 4 Parts),” are grayer and more pensive but retain a soft, rippling sense of motion.

She is represented by the Marian Goodman Gallery, which describes her body of work on its website as “a dynamic visual articulation of contemporary experience, a depiction of social behavior and the psychogeography of space.”

“Mehretu’s practice in painting, drawing and printmaking equally assert the role of art to provoke thought and reflection, and express the contemporary condition of the individual and society,” the gallery added.

Mehretu was born in 1970 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to an Ethiopian father and an American mother. Seven years later, the family moved to the United States to escape a brutal civil war then-raging in the country. In 1997, she earned a Masters of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design; she is currently based in New York.

She has received widespread acclaim for her work, and prestigious awards including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005 and, in 2015, a U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts Award.

She was unanimously selected for this project by a jury of prominent gallery and museum directors.

Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and a member of that jury, described Mehretu as the “perfect artist” to take on the BMW Art Car in a statement released last June announcing her selection. “For years, Julie has painted speed and for a long time worked very successfully at scale,” Grynsztejn said. “To merge her work with the shape and form of a speeding vehicle is really an alignment of perfection.”

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