Toledo museum takes to the open road with 'Life Is a Highway'

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Feeling blue now that the excitement of the Dream Cruise has passed?

Don't despair. Pack up your auto enthusiasms and motor on down to the Toledo Museum of Art to catch the striking show, "Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture," which will be up through Sept. 15. 

"Anna's Birthday Party #3" by Holly Andres in "Life Is a Highway" at the Toledo Museum of Art through Sept. 30.

This ambitious exhibition traces the car both chronologically and thematically -- from early exhilaration to growing disillusionment and back.

"I was very careful not to make this just a celebration of car culture," said Robin Reisenfeld, TMA curator of works on paper who organized the show. "I wanted to present a more balanced picture and call attention to some of the complexities."

On the one hand, the show has much that suggests freedom, like the 1957 Kodak ad, "Closing a Summer Cottage, Quoge, NY," which invokes the zing of summer vacations far from the city made possible by the car. (New Yorkers of a certain age may remember when it was displayed as a huge back-lit transparency in Grand Central Station.)

Charles Sheeler's 1931 painting "Classic Landscape," by contrast, documents structures at the Ford Rouge complex with the gravity generally reserved for historic landscapes -- perhaps not surprising in the Depression, when industry was seen as one of the only routes out of catastrophe.

"Sheeler presents River Rouge as this technological utopia," Reisenfeld said, "emphasizing machine efficiency and progress. He strips everything down, and makes the parallel between factory design and classical architecture."

But the show also raises questions about the costs that come with the automobile's central place in our lives, epitomized by Edward Burtynsky's "Oxford Tire Pile #8," with its mountains of used tires, or Andy Warhol's bloody silkscreen of a car crash circa 1963, crumpled bodies included, "5 Deaths (Red)." 

"Oxford Tire Pile #8" by Edward Burtynsky in "Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture."

A particularly thoughtful inclusion is a gallery devoted to the "Green Book," the travel guide African-Americans used from 1936 to the mid-'60s to identify hotels, restaurants and other establishments hospitable to blacks and, according to the explanatory label, Jews as well.

But don't get the idea that "Life Is a Highway" is in any way a downer.

Despite its nuance, the overriding mood of this show is one of wide-open horizons, and the thrilling liberty the car afforded ordinary people.

Photographer Robert Frank's "Public Park, Ann Arbor, Michigan" speaks to teenage romance far from parental eyes, while John Divola's "Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert" evokes speed and exhilaration. 

Exhilarating in its way as well is a marvelous video of clips from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 "Modern Times," with the mustachioed tramp falling perilously behind on the auto assembly line -- a bit like Lucille Ball in the candy factory decades later. Under no circumstances should you leave the show without seeing it. 

And in a nice touch, the show's designer Claude Fixler has dotted the walls with auto paraphernalia, whether a collection of red tail lights circa 1930-1950, or a constellation of hub caps. 

In addition, our passage through the show in places is amusingly guided by metal guard rails that both keep us in line and, one assumes, safe. 

All in all, "Life Is a Highway" traces the car as a 20th-century through-line, reminds us of the vehicle's inescapable role in our lives, and conjures up some of the thrill of summer wind rushing through open windows. 

John Baeder's painting, "Stardust Motel," at the Toledo Museum of Art in "Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture"

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'Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture'

Through Sept. 15

Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe, Toledo

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tues.-Wed; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thurs.-Fri; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat; noon-5 p.m. Sun.  

Tickets to "Life is a Highway:"  $12 - nonmembers; $10 - military, college students, & seniors; $7 - kids 5-17; (Free 5 p.m.-9 p.m. every Thursday) 

Parking - $8

(419) 255-8000