A young woman walks through the American Dreams: Classic Cars and Postwar Paintings exhibition.
A woman passes a 1957 Ford Thunderbird while walking through the American Dreams: Classic Cars and Postwar Paintings exhibition at the McNay Art Museum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In a new exhibition that reflects on the spirit of creativity and ingenuity in postwar America, the McNay Art Museum has paired 10 classic cars with 25 works of art.

American Dreams: Classic Cars and Postwar Paintings, which will be on view through May 19, boasts American artwork and cars from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. “This period, known as America’s Golden Age,” the McNay’s website explains, “witnessed the explosion of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and Op art; the mass production of automobiles; and increased wealth and consumerism.”

Artworks featured in the exhibition, a few on loan and most from the McNay’s permanent collection, include works by Joan Mitchell, Dorothy Hood, Hans Hofmann, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Grace Hartigan, and others. Meanwhile, automobiles in the exhibition, presented here as modern sculpture, include 1959 and 1963 Chevrolet Corvettes, a 1948 Tucker Torpedo (one of only 51 ever made), a 1957 Pontiac Star Chief convertible, a 1956 DeSoto Firedome, and a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro (with special Spurs-worshipping flourishes).

American Dreams is the collaborative effort of several curatorial and non-curatorial McNay personnel. Director Richard Aste helped shape the exhibition from the loose first outline of the idea, and head of education Kate Carey co-curated alongside head of curatorial affairs René Paul Barilleaux and assistant curator Jackie Edwards.

“It was very exciting from the beginning,” Carey said of curating American Dreams. That the process included a number of visits to special car collections around the region made it an unusual curatorial effort.

“We wanted to tell a story that was colorful, so we looked for cars that displayed innovation and also design flourishes that took them over the top,” she said. The end result, once paintings were paired with the selected cars, is the “joy, delight and excitement” that Carey hopes visitors will experience.

“There is just this immense sense of playfulness, of exploration, of optimism,” Carey said.

For the McNay, the hope is that car lovers will leave the exhibition with a new appreciation for art and that art lovers will leave the exhibition with a new appreciation for classic cars as works of art.

A DeSoto automobile is on display.
A 1956 DeSoto Firedome is among the 10 classic cars displayed at the McNay’s exhibition, which runs through May 19. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Speaking of postwar America as embodied in this exhibition, Carey noted that “there were very difficult things about the period, too, but there will be other exhibitions to explore those difficulties.” For this exhibition, the vibe is meant to be hopeful, expansive, and uplifting.

Aste said the inspiration for the exhibition came a couple of years ago from the Museum of Modern Art, where he visited the 1960s galleries that recently had been re-installed.

“When I walked into the 1961 gallery, the first thing I saw wasn’t a painting or a sculpture like I was expecting, but it was a Jaguar E-Type roadster from 1961,” Aste said. “And, I thought, ‘This is just brilliant,’ because what it did is expand the traditional definition of art and beauty to include high design in steel and on four wheels. And the moment you bring a car into an art museum, you see that car differently. It takes on a completely different aesthetic with the new context.”

Aste also mentioned several other museums, including in Dallas and Houston, that have brought cars into art museum exhibitions. The first one, he noted, was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which showed a collection of fashion mogul Ralph Lauren’s cars in 2006.

“But what they all had done is bring in the cars and look at the cars as works of art,” he said. “What we wanted to reinforce is that, yes, we are having cars as sculpture, but also our mission is about the visual arts. So, we wanted to make sure that our mission was included in this narrative … and that’s why we have the specific pairings of cars and paintings.”

On another note, Aste explained that the exhibition gave the museum a chance to tell a triumphant tale. “Focusing on postwar America tells a really unique story,” he said, “because it’s the first time in painting and, really, in design that America takes global center stage.”

Aste sees American Dreams as a way to enliven engagement with the broader San Antonio community.

“We want to meet our community where they are and create dynamic points of entry into the McNay experience,” he said. “There’s a great passion for automobiles in our city and state, and we wanted to speak directly to that passion.”

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.