Future Retro: Car Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles

This exhibition is open July 1 - October 30, 2016.


Postwar America’s optimism found one of its signal expressions in automotive design and illustration, a story of American artistic ascendance that parallels New York’s eclipse of Paris as the world’s artistic center. Opening on July 1, 2016 at the Redwood Library and Athenæum, and presented in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Future Retro: Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles traces this rich graphic history with a selection of 53 drawings from the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection, now part of the holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 

The exhibition surveys automotive art from the 1950s to the 1970s, providing a view onto what is now understood to be the ‘Great Age’ of American know-how in car design and excellence in automotive art. At the nexus of engineering, design, art and advertising, the show also offers intriguing perspectives on the technological advances and cultural shifts of the postwar era and their impact on car design, as well as on conventions of automotive advertising in relation to consumer trends. For many postwar Americans, prosperity was imagined in terms of technological progress that often conflated flight with cars, yielding drawings that emphasize large fins and other aerodynamic elements in the service of a consumer desire for the ‘futuristic.’

"The bulk of these drawings tended to be discarded as non-art—as the functional byproduct of the car design process,” explains Benedict Leca, Redwood Executive Director and coordinating curator. “Yet as this exhibition makes clear, these are marvelously rendered works every bit as loaded with cultural meaning and aesthetic value as more traditional ‘high art’ drawings. They thus demand—among other things—that we revisit the age-old division between art and design and between elite cultural products and mass consumption.” 

Featuring a broad range of depictions, from concept car projects to production car illustrations, from sketches of exterior ornaments to interior styling proposals, the selected drawings touch on the various themes car companies and their artists used to excite the imagination of the American public. Emblematic of the muscle car era, a Cadillac Eldorado Proposal combines the sinister muscularity befitting high performance with sleek, fashionable contours and silvery tones. An adjacent theme was romance, if not outright seduction: a sketch of an interior, GM Buick Interior Proposal, Electra, with Girl, recreates a vignette of the permissive 1970s, where a seductively attired woman addresses the viewer in an auto interior wildly patterned in acidic yellows and greens. The exhibition also features advertising art conceived as part of branding campaigns: a maquette of an advertising poster for a 1951 Cadillac, for example, features a meticulous depiction of a Coupe de Ville, in a design that incorporates the brand’s emblem alongside calligraphic lettering to re-inscribe the car’s classic lines and refined luxury. 

Originally conceived by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Redwood Library’s iteration of Future Retro: Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles draws from the MFA collection, with the selection made by David de Muzio, Executive Director of the Audrain Automobile Museum, and Benedict Leca, Executive Director the Redwood Library and curator of the Library’s presentation. Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated catalog published by MFA Publications with essays by collector Frederic A. Sharf and additional text by Richard Arbib. 

The Redwood Library gratefully acknowledges financial support from Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, as well as the kind cooperation of the MFA Boston’s registrarial and curatorial departments. 

The exhibition is mounted in tandem with Newport’s Audrain Automobile Museum, which will concurrently present Classic & Fantastic: Automobiles 1945 - 1965 from July 1 to October 16, 2016, featuring corresponding production cars in addition to concept cars, including a Batmobile. Visitors are encouraged to attend both exhibitions.


This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.