The Art of the Motorcycle

crocker motorcycle

The Art of the Motorcycle was an exhibition that presented 114 motorcycles chosen for their historic importance or design excellence in a display designed by Frank Gehry in the curved rotunda of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, running for three months in late 1998.

The catalog of the exhibition covered a broad range of historic motorcycles starting from pre-20th century steam-powered velocipedes and tricycles, covering the earliest production motorcycles, Art Deco machines of the 20s and 30s, iconic Harley-Davidsons and Indians, British roadsters, and on up to the striking race replica street bikes of the 80s and 90s, ending with the MV Agusta F4. The idea of the show was to use motorcycles as a way of surveying the 20th century.

The interior of the Guggenheim’s spiral ramp was covered in reflective stainless steel, a design by Frank Gehry, with a stylized pavement under the tires of the exhibits, and the bikes not leaned over on their kickstands, but rather standing up, as if in motion, held by thin wires and small clear plastic chocks under the wheels.

The year 1998 coincided with the 50th anniversary of Honda motorcycles, the 75th of BMW motorcycles and the 95th of Harley-Davidson. Fifty-four collections loaned motorcycles, with the greatest number lent by the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum, and the Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife.

The exhibition was condemned outright by some art critics and social commentators who rejected the idea of an exhibition of motorcycles at the Guggenheim. They saw it as a failure of the museum to carry out its social role as a leader and educator of the public’s understanding of art. Rather than guide the masses toward works they might not have considered or been aware of, ‘The Art of the Motorcycle’ showed them things they already were familiar with, and already liked. In other words, pandering to the lowest common denominator by giving people more of what they wanted and none of what they needed.

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