MSU BROAD
InterStates of Mind installation view

InterStates of Mind

The Motor City. Vehicle City. Autotown, USA. People may know these cities by other names—Detroit, Flint, Lansing—but Michiganders understand better than anyone how the spirits of these places have been moved and largely defined by the automobile. These cities make cars, and the car made these cities. Yet the story of how the automobile has changed the course of history continues to unfold today, and its social, economic, and cultural impacts are both to be celebrated and critically examined. 

The rise of the automobile introduced major cultural shifts in the United States thanks in part to new opportunities for physical and social mobility. It enabled a reimagining of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, few of these benefits were ushered in democratically—indeed, many of the changes perpetuated economic, racial, and gender disparities. The automobile has thus become the ultimate symbol of American values: through it we experience life’s joys and hardships—opportunity, freedom, connection to one another, but also fragmentation and inequality. 

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile traces the development of the automotive industry and interstate highway system through artworks made from the early 1900s to the present. Situated at a crossroads of cultural contradictions, the show unpacks our fascination with the automobile and the different, at times competing, ideals that continue to shape our visions of the United States today. Composed primarily of works from the MSU Broad collection, the exhibition also brings together important loans from regional and national collections, as well as archival and other documentary materials that offer crucial historical context.

The exhibition also brings together different stories and perspectives—from the artists on view to local community members and the work of MSU faculty and students. These personal narratives and insights are presented through written statements, quotes, and audio recordings, which add new layers of meaning and interpretation to the objects on view. The inclusion of these diverse voices also helps to further untangle the complex web of interests that continue to shape automotive culture today.

Take a virtual tour of the exhibition with curators Steven L. Bridges and Georgia Erger >

 

Modern Utopias, Unrealized

The growing automobile industry of the early twentieth century brought about utopian visions of a new society. The coming era of economic prosperity, largely due to investments in automotive jobs and infrastructure, held the promise of new lifestyles full of comfort and leisure.

This vision of a modern utopia was vigorously promoted by the major automobile companies. Large-scale exhibits and skillfully crafted marketing campaigns captured the imaginations of the millions who flocked to auto factories and showrooms, hoping to carve out their own piece of the American pie. But over time, more unsettling realizations have replaced the hopeful dreams of past generations. Factories have shuttered, their workforces replaced by automation or sent overseas. The utopian promise of the automobile remains unrealized.

Artists Scott Hocking and Clarissa Tossin both consider the impact of this vision on places like Detroit, Michigan and Belterra, Brazil.

Listen to artist Scott Hocking discuss the series Garden of the Gods >

Listen to artist Clarissa Tossin discuss the series When two places look alike >

InterStates of Mind installation view

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, South, Winter

Scott Hocking, Garden of the Gods, South, Winter, 2010, printed 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Scott Hocking was born and raised in Metro Detroit, and many of his site-specific installations investigate the city’s changing physical, social, and political landscape. These photographs depict the artist’s 2009 intervention in the abandoned Packard plant, a manufacturing site for the Packard Motor Car from 1907 to 1954. Hocking positioned television consoles found discarded in the factory complex on columns that once supported the now partially collapsed roof. The columns become pedestals, elevating the television to the status of sacred object. This modern-day temple of the gods amid urban ruins also reminds us of the ebb and flow of deep time, and that from the ashes something always grows anew.

 

 

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike

Clarissa Tossin, When two places look alike, 2012–13. Courtesy the artist; Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo; and Commonwealth and Council, Los Angeles.  

Clarissa Tossin’s work investigates cross-cultural and economic interactions between the United States and Brazil. This series overlays photographic fragments of houses from two different towns: Belterra, Brazil, and Alberta, Michigan. Both were industry towns developed by Henry Ford: Belterra (aka Fordlândia), founded in 1934, was a rubber plantation, and Alberta, founded in 1936, supplied timber to the factories downstate. In her juxtapositions, the artist reveals how the architecture in Belterra is “inappropriate and aesthetically, completely foreign to the region.” Ford attempted to export modest Michigan single-family homes to his Brazilian settlement, a move typical of colonizing efforts. Tossin’s photographs thus draw attention to the auto industry’s early global spread, and how it created fissures in communities both near and far.

 

Visual Culture and the Open Road

The automobile and its infrastructures came to represent a fulfillment of Manifest Destiny—the belief that US expansion throughout the continent was both justified and inevitable. Through this expansion, the landscape of the United States changed both physically and visually.

With the building of a vast network of roads, huge swaths of the country transformed into sites for tourism and leisure. The boom of the roadhouse, the gas station, the diner, the motel, and the roadside attraction gave rise to the beloved pastime of the American road trip. A new generation of artists devoted themselves to the expanding visual culture ushered in by the automobile—its graphic designs, signage, sleek commercial appeal. Pop art in particular developed out of such interests, and many of the artists in this section reflect on the shifting visual culture of their day.

One of those artists is Ed Ruscha. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles in 1956, but often returned home to the Midwest traveling along the storied Route 66. Much of his fascination with the open road and US car culture stems from these travels.

Ride shotgun through mid-century LA with Ed Ruscha’s photos and Jack Kerouac’s words >

From 1935 to 1944, the federal government formed the Resettlement Administration—later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA)—to combat rural poverty during the Great Depression. The agency hired photographers, such as Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, to document impoverished communities and the relief efforts directed toward them. The pictures were broadly circulated in newspapers and magazines to publicize discrepancies between the widely promoted clichés of American economic life and the harsh realities of the Depression.

Assistant Curator Georgia Erger takes us behind-the-scenes during the installation of InterStates of Mind to discuss a selection of photographs taken as part of the FSA.

 

InterStates installation view

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

InterStates installation view

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Material and Form

The automobile has long been a source of fascination and inspiration for many artists. These selected artists take particular interest in the automobile’s material and formal qualities, playing with different artistic strategies and found (automotive) materials to create works that reference the automobile—but also become something else. In offering new ways of looking at the automobile—the tires, the “guts” of the engine, the curves of its body, its skeletal frame—these artists invite us to engage their materiality in provocative ways.

Chakaia Booker salvages cast-off industrial materials, such as automobile tires, and transforms them into abstract sculptures. The artist notes: “I was making things from discarded materials—assemblages—and any time I went out to look for materials, the rubber tire was always there.” As commercial objects, tires symbolize the promises of the automobile: freedom, exploration, movement. But when discarded, they become metaphors for the decline of industry and the abundant waste resulting from rampant consumerism. Booker gives new life to urban debris through her intensive process of cutting, sewing, shredding, and bending rubber tires into complex, textural forms.

Watch Chakaia Booker's TedxNASA talk >

Watch Associate Curator Steven L. Bridges discuss works by artist Chakaia Booker >

Chakaia Booker, Bate

Chakaia Booker, Bate, 2007. MSU Public Art on Campus. Photo: Aaron Word/MSU Broad.

Nancy Grossman, Car Horn

Nancy Grossman, Car Horn, 1965, leather, metal, rubber, wood, and paint assemblage on canvas mounted on plywood. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.


Nancy Grossman moved to Brooklyn to study at the Pratt Institute in 1962, when Abstract Expressionism—an artistic movement that prioritized raw, evocative abstract gestures—was in full swing. Grossman embraced abstraction, but combined it with figurative references, and rather than working with paint on canvas, she explored nontraditional materials. Such is the case with Car Horn, which combines and reassembles automotive parts. The artist explains that “the tubes, openings, and leather refer to the human body, while the accumulation of objects shows the increasing American consumption of consumer goods during this era.”

Richard Hunt, Field Section

Richard Hunt, Field Section, 1971, steel and automotive parts. Detroit Institute of Arts Collection. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

 

Over his long and celebrated career, Richard Hunt has often looked to the automobile and its many parts for inspiration. Hunt has commented that “he thinks in metal,” and while his sculptures are often abstract in nature, they also conjure a sense of the body—in this case, a skeletal frame. The artist’s process even resembles assembly-line automobile production, something the author Phillip Barcio picks up on: “Hunt hits them with fire, slices into them, bends them, and pounds on them with a hammer atop an anvil until eventually their lines become graceful and soft. His dynamism becomes the dynamism in the work.”

The Auto State

Michigan’s automotive industries became social forces around which strong community ties developed. Manufacturers referred to their workforce a family, underscoring the social bonds that extended beyond just the work itself. They sponsored social clubs, intramural sports teams, special events and festivities, which elevated the standard of living in cities like Detroit, Flint, and Lansing. However, such notions of kinship often reinforced racial and gender lines, preserving the segregation that pervaded everyday life. Many of the artists in this section hail from Michigan or made work here. Some also have direct ties to the industry, and together their works explore the automobile as a social, political, and economic force.

One of those artists is Margo Wolowiec. From a distance, this work by Detroit-based artist appears abstract, but upon closer examination, fragments of images and information emerge: the sleek surfaces of car bodies, a worker’s hands, archival materials, the natural landscape. Equally invested in materials, process, and imagery, the content of Wolowiec’s piece evokes multiple histories. Wolowiec comes from a long line of autoworkers, and her art pays homage to her family history while also exploring the legacy of their work.

Read an interview with artist Margo Wolowiec in the exhibition brochure >

 

InterStates of Mind installation view

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.

Photographer unknown, Woman standing with automobile, Lansing, MI

Photographer unknown, Woman standing with automobile, Lansing, MI, date unknown. Courtesy the Historical Society of Greater Lansing.

Lansing’s reputation as a major industrial city started with automotive pioneer Ransom Eli Olds. In 1897, Olds founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, his hometown. Following the early success of the business, Olds moved the company to Detroit. But after a 1901 fire burned large sections of the Detroit factory to the ground, Olds brought the company back to Lansing once again. By 1905 the newly minted REO Motor Company started producing automobiles along South Washington Avenue, a district known still today as REO Town. REO’s signature Curved Dash Oldsmobile was the first mass-produced car. Despite claims that Henry Ford invented the assembly line and the concept of interchangeable parts, it was in fact Olds who first implemented these revolutionary ideas. This connection to the birth of the automobile industry in many ways solidified Lansing as an important industrial hub. REO strengthened its “family” image by publishing magazines such as REO Items and REO Spirit, which also reveal how the factory family was molded according to certain values of the time. Men and women held different jobs and were paid differently; racial lines stratified employment and status within the organization; and the various extracurricular activities, like the dances at the famed REO Clubhouse, were segregated not only by race but by gender as well.

Photographer unknown, Richard Frankensteen, Murray Body Strike, Detroit, Michigan, 1937

Photographer unknown, Richard Frankensteen, Murray Body Strike, Detroit, Michigan, 1937, 1937. Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Founded in 1935, and still very much alive and active today, the United Auto Workers (UAW) labor union fights for “bread-and-butter” issues: higher wages, pensions, safer working conditions, shorter shifts. UAW leaders and members seek dignity for workers and a seat at the table to negotiate labor issues with management and legislators. The UAW was also an early supporter of social initiatives, most notably under its fourth president, Walter Reuther (active from 1946–70), including President Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms and the Civil Rights movement. This group of photographs documents strikes and demonstrations organized by the UAW in the 1930s and 40s, including the Flint Sit-Down Strike, the Battle of the Overpass at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, and the UAW Women’s Auxiliary March in Detroit. More recently, the 2019 General Motors Strike saw the walkout of some forty-eight thousand UAW members from more than fifty US plants. Their demands included increased job security, better opportunities for temporary workers to become permanent, higher pay, and better health care benefits.

The Green Book

Auto industry jobs enabled many Black families to afford their own cars, but for travelers of color, any road trip brought with it potentially life-threatening encounters. In the era of Jim Crow (a racial caste system relegating Black people and people of color to the status of secondary citizens, legally upheld from the 1870s until 1965), few places welcomed Black travelers or vacationers. In 1936, Victor H. Green published the first edition of the Green Book, a detailed travel guide designed specifically for Black people. The first pages bear the words: “Just What You Have Been Looking For!! Now We Can Travel Without the Embarrassment.” The practical guide listed welcoming restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and various Black-owned businesses where readers could properly plan their trip in advance, stop at safe locations along America’s roads, and avoid the humiliation of being denied basic services. The last edition of the Green Book was issued in 1966, the only one published after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Author and historian Candacy Taylor emphasizes that the 1966 issue informs the reader immediately that there is “a new bill of rights for everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. Public Accommodations: Effective at once, every hotel, restaurant, theater or other facility catering to the general public must do exactly that.”

Visualize a trip using the Green Book on the New York Public Library’s website >

Watch The Real Story of the Green Book by Vox >

Resorts specifically catering to Black families also emerged starting around 1920, and continuing through the post–World War II era. Idlewild, Michigan, was perhaps the most famous of them all. Tucked away in the woods of Lake County, at its peak Idlewild drew some twenty-five thousand Black vacationers every summer, who came to enjoy the beautiful lakes and serene nature, but also to see some of the world’s best musicians. Nightclubs like the Flamingo and Paradise hosted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., the Four Tops, and Louis Armstrong—hence Idlewild’s nickname, “Black Eden of Michigan.”

​​​​​​​Victor H. Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book

Victor H. Green, The Negro Motorist Green Book, 1949 edition, Published by Victor H. Green & Co., New York. Courtesy Special Collections, MSU Libraries, Michigan State University.

Installation

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and co-curated by Steven L. Bridges, Associate Curator, and Georgia Erger, Assistant Curator, with assistance from Thaís Wenstrom, Curatorial Research and Administrative Assistant, and Nick Sly and Dani M. Willcutt, Graduate Fellows in History. Lead funding for this exhibition is provided by a gift from MSU Federal Credit Union with additional support from the Eli and Edythe Broad endowed exhibitions fund.

InterStates of Mind installation photography

InterStates of Mind installation photography

InterStates of Mind: Rewriting the Map of the United States in the Age of the Automobile installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.