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Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles Opens at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 6/14

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This summer, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will present Sensuous Steel: Art Deco Automobiles, an exhibition of unique and luxurious autos from the 1930s and '40s. Sensuous Steel includes 18 automobiles and three motorcycles drawn from some of the most renowned car collectors and collections in the automotive world. Organized by Guest Curator Ken Gross, former Petersen Automotive Museum director, the exhibitionwill be on view in the Center's Ingram Gallery from June 14 through September 15, 2013.

While today automotive manufacturers often strive for economy and efficiency, there was a time when elegance reigned. Like the Frist Center's historic building, the automobiles included in Sensuous Steel display the classic grace and modern luxury of Art Deco design. An eclectic, machine-inspired decorative style that thrived between the two World Wars, Art Deco combined craft motifs with industrial materials and lavish embellishments. The movement began in Paris in the early 1920s and was propelled to prominence in 1927 with the success of the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts. Automakers embraced the sleek iconography of motion and aircraft-inspired materials connotative of Art Deco, creating memorable automobiles that still thrill all who see them.

"Sensuous Steel is the first major museum auto exhibition devoted entirely to Art Deco automobiles, and there could be no more fitting a venue than the Frist Center's landmark historic Art Deco building, which was completed in 1934," notes Frist Center Executive Director Dr. Susan H. Edwards. "Art Deco styling influenced everything from architecture to sleek passenger trains and luxury liners, furniture, appliances, jewelry, objets d'art, signage, fashionable clothing and, of course, automobiles. The works in this exhibition convey the breadth, diversity, and stunning artistry of cars designed in the Art Deco style."

"Rapidly changing and ever-evolving, the automobile became the perfect metal canvas upon which industrial designers expressed the vital spirit of the interwar period," explains Guest Curator Ken Gross. "To give the illusion of dramatic movement and forward thrust, cars of the 1930s and '40s merged gentle curves with angular edges. These automobiles were made from the finest materials and sported beautifully crafted ornamentation, geometric grillwork, and the elegant miniature statuary of hood ornaments.

"The classic cars of the Art Deco age remain today as among the most visually exciting, iconic and refined designs of the twentieth century," Mr. Gross continues.

Among the automobiles included in Sensuous Steel are:

  • 1929 Cord L-29 Cabriolet- Designed by Alan Leamy who is known for styling the famed Auburn Speedster, the Cord L-29 Cabriolet was the first U.S. front-drive luxury car. It was painted its notable burnt orange color by its former owner, Frank Lloyd Wright.
  • 1937 Delahaye 135 MS Roadster by Figoni and Falaschi- Created for the 1937 Paris Auto Show, this car was called "a Paris gown on wheels." The roadster features aluminum coachwork and a leather interior by Hermes. Most significant are four features that were patented by Figoni and Falaschi, which included a roll-down disappearing windshield.
  • 1934 Edsel Ford Model 40 Speedster- Designed by E.T. "Bob" Gregorie specifically for Edsel B. Ford, the speedster features a two-seater aluminum alloy body patterned after an Indy race car. It is the only one of its kind ever made.
  • 1934 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow Sedan- Designed by Phillip Wright, the Arrow Sedan was originally built for the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition (1933-34). This car was the epitome of luxury with a price tag of $10,000 (roughly $170,000 today). Only five of these sedans were made, with three of them surviving to this day.
  • 1935 Stout Scarab- Bill Stout, an aircraft engineer who developed the Ford Tri-Motor aircraft, began creating a radical sedan concept in the early 1930s. The end result, the Scarab, featured a roomy interior that boasted moveable seats and a small table. This unique auto anticipated the first minivan.

Ken Gross served as guest curator for The Allure of the Automobile, a nationally acclaimed exhibition displayed at Atlanta's High Museum of Art in 2010; additionally, he developed a revised version of the exhibition for the Portland Art Museum the following year. Gross curated Speed: The Art of the Performance Automobile last yearat the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City. A highly respected automotive journalist for more than 40 years, Gross writes for numerous publications including AutoWeek, Playboy, Hagerty's Magazine, Sports Car Market, Motor Trend Classic, Popular Mechanics, msnautos.com, Old Cars Weekly and The Rodder's Journal. A noted authority on automobiles, he has judged at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance for 24 years. Gross also judges at the Amelia Island Concours and was the Chief Judge at the Rodeo Drive Concours d'Elegance. Additionally, Gross has received many awards including the 2009 IAMA Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2009 Lee Iacocca Award, the 2008 Washington Auto Press "Golden Quill Award," the Society of Automotive Historians' "Cugnot Award," and "The James Valentine Memorial Award" for excellence in automotive historical research.


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