(Bloomberg) -- If you’ve been in Beverly Hills, California, lately, you’ve noticed three classic cars stacked upright on the corner of Beverly and Santa Monica boulevards. They stand like totems outside the Paley Center for Media: a red Ferrari 250 GTO, a silver Mercedes 300 SLR and a green Porsche 911 Carrera RS.
Thierry Guetta, aka Mr. Brainwash, and his crew put them there late one night in November, just around the corner from an empty Rodeo Drive sparkling with Christmas lights. The cars are the face of his new pop-up installation, “Mr. Brainwash Art Museum,” which will open to the public on Dec. 18.
“This show is setting up the next decade, the next 10 years,” he says, noting that the museum will travel after it ends its as-yet-undetermined LA run. This will be the first major Mr. Brainwash show since a surprise pop up in New York City in 2015. “It’s the first of many things to come.”
A bearded Frenchman with a signature hat and paint-splattered Nikes, the pop artist who goes by Mr. Brainwash made his name by putting his own twist on famous art. His The Balloon Girl is the famous Banksy silhouette of a girl with a red, heart-shaped balloon but splattered with paint and cartoon-style phrases such as “Keep Smiling.” Many of his paintings (produced by a team of employees, it should be noted) are derived from the famous Andy Warhol polaroids, augmented with cut-out letters, stencils and graffiti backgrounds.
Guetta is the latest in a long line of artists to use the automobile as medium and muse. Andy Warhol was making screen prints of Mercedes-Benz cars in the 1980s; Jenny Holzer did an art car for BMW in the 1990s. Lately, Daniel Arsham has been profiting off his newfound interest in Porsche.
Guetta’s automotive renditions—hollowed-out recreations of the actual cars—are the most joyful of the lot, befitting his ebullient personality. During a private preview of the show, Guetta literally jumps around with excitement, waving his arms and gesturing as he talks about his first car (a Renault 5) and how he once paid $600 for a ‘60s Ford Mustang.
“The car is art,” he says. “There is no price for something you love, whether it’s $200 million for the Mercedes outside or $100,000 or $1,000. It's whatever you love, whatever you can afford.”
Two videographers are recording his every move, as is the guy shooting still photographs; at least two assistants swirl in and out with various requests and concerns. Guetta climbs on the countertop surrounded by hundreds of copies of old master paintings in gilded frames and flourished with whimsical touches—a clown nose, a Batman mask, a teddy bear head—and announces that he loves the nostalgia of old cars and how they remind him of carvings done by great masters. During multiple hours on multiple days of talking with him, he removes the small camera harnessed to his chest only once, to have his portrait taken. The rest of the time he is presumably recording.
“A car is a sculpture that can drive,” Guetta says, now standing by an orange Porsche 911 in the front gallery window. “And it's not going to drive you only where you want to go, but it's going to drive you back to your memory. So if you have a 1973 RS Porsche, you're going back to 1973!”
The use of exclamation points, which may seem excessive, is the only way to convey the sheer enthusiasm emanating from Guetta’s body, face, hands and feet. He is constantly gesturing, yelling and darting off to show visitors his newest installation. Also, he drives a Mercedes-Benz G Wagon, which he loves and doesn’t baby. “It’s my truck. I back it into everything!”
Guetta has long been a fixture in LA, where he has lived since he was 15. After stints as a club promoter, vintage clothier and filmmaker documenting his cousin, Space Invader, and such other street artists as Swoon and Shepard Fairey, he started making his own art, first as stencil cut-outs in the street and then as posters and paintings. Michael Jackson and Madonna were early patrons. In 2008, Guetta held his first show, “Life is Beautiful,” at CBS Studios on Sunset Boulevard. That show included hundreds of paintings, prints and a sculpture made from 100,000 shoes. The financing behind it remains something of a mystery, although many in the art world point to Banksy and Fairey as the sources.
In 2010, Banksy’s documentary film Exit Through the Gift Shop chronicled Guetta’s rise from no-name videographer to insider among the world’s heavy-hitter street artists, who begrudgingly accept his cameras and nonstop kooky antics. Many art insiders speculated that “Mr. Brainwash” was actually a stunt produced by Banksy himself, who was said to be a puppet master directing Guetta in how to do art and run the operation. Both Banksy and Guetta have repeatedly denied the claim. Guetta, over the course of more than a decade of media coverage, has always seemed blissfully unbothered by those who question his artistic origin and authenticity. And even if some critics turn up their noses at Brainwash as a pop art prank, the public has embraced him. The “Beautiful” show drew 30,000 visitors over its run, and the first few weeks of the public opening of “Mr. Brainwash Art Museum” have already sold out.
The same year Exit Through the Gift Shop premiered, Guetta’s auction debut sold a work depicting Charlie Chaplain standing next to a graffiti-style pink heart for $122,500, twice initial estimates. Since then he has shown work in Miami and London, Art Basel and the Olympic Games with commissions for Mercedes-Benz, Coachella and the Hard Rock Hotel, among others. In 2020, his Star Wars Reunion sold for $15,000 at a Phillips auction. Most of his prints sell for less than $5,000; such original pieces as a paint-splattered Kate Moss list for $20,000 and up on 1stDibs.com.
“Mr. Brainwash Art Museum” is in the 26,500-square-foot, Richard Meier-designed Paley Center and primed to be bigger than the “Beautiful” show. Guetta has rented the space since 2020, when he was hoping to stage the show before novel coronavirus hit the world’s pause button. (LVMH paid $80 million for the building and other nearby properties in 2018 to turn them into the Cheval Blanc hotel for opening in 2026.)
Porsche in particular has captured his attention. “The Porsche is everybody’s kid inside of them,” he says. That navel orange Porsche 911 Carrera RS he has been standing alongside is in a Matchbox package. It’s a life-sized version of the $1 toy cars collected by the young and young-at-heart since 1953. (Mattel purchased the brand in 1997.)
Guetta says the “matchbox” Porsche will go on display at the Petersen Museum when it leaves his show, although it’s unclear whether the transaction is a loan, a purchase or a gift. “If they want to keep it permanent, they'll have it permanent,” he says, smiling.
Elsewhere, giant spray paintings of Kobe Bryant and Tupac Shakur hang surrounded by copies of old-fashioned portraits topped with Basquiat-style heads. A large “Renoir” with cell phones added to the scene dominates one wall; on another, a portrait half-Alfred Hitchcock and half-Francis Bacon sits across from a portrait half-Batman, half-Picasso. Other rooms recreate Van Gogh’s field paintings in life-size form, resemble a Manhattan subway car with a photo booth, and celebrate Star Wars as immersive experience. Upstairs, a tunnel of metallic, mirrored paneling and neon lights leads to a room with dozens of typewriters and faded books, with old-world equestrian portraits hanging on wood-paneled walls. Each corner is primed for the creation of optimal Tik-Tok and Instagram content.
The cars, though, hold Guetta’s spasmodic attention the longest. He picks up two gold-framed paintings of ancient-looking landscapes—each punctuated with a scarlet Ferrari driving in the distance—and says he must give one as a gift to Bruce Meyer, the noted collector and Rodeo Drive real estate magnate. As chance would have it, the men are neighbors. Meyer’s own private garage and multimillion-dollar collection of real cars is right next door.
“The car is a way of communication between people,” Guetta patters on as he contemplates the potential gift, speaking almost to himself. “A car from Italy that is a Ferrari that's coming to America—that, there is something to love.”
Tickets to “Mr. Brainwash Art Museum” are here. They cost $20 for regular admission; children may enter for free.
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