How Cool Cars, High Art Was Born
In the late nineties, I was at a particularly low point in my life. I had tried and failed with a more contemporary Varian (known simply as Varian) novel. I wasn’t feeling particularly poetic, and criticism seemed even more remote from me as I witnessed the complete takeover of the field by theorists.
I knew I needed to do something, so I sat in my desk chair and spun around, and where my eyes landed, I would find a sign that would lead me to what I should be working on. The chair stopped turning and I found myself in front of my bookcases looking at a shelved mass of old hot rod magazines and books about cars. And I knew immediately that the chair had stopped in exactly the right spot.
I also knew I didn’t want to add another book to the pile of coffee table books that had already been published on hot rods and custom cars. I had to figure out what I could offer that was different. I saw it in the art books sitting right next to the hot rod books, and I knew I wanted to take advantage of the fact that I had been teaching at a school of the arts. It was clear to me that these cars not only were works of art but represented a particular kind of art that paralleled in surprising ways the history of modern art.
I found the same aesthetic ideas in the work of mechanics, body men, and auto painters that I found in Picasso, Braque, and Man Ray, and in postmodern artists like Richard Prince, Victor Burgin, Sherri Levine, and Audrey Flack. I had found my subject. I spent the next five years traveling from coast to coast, from car show to car show, from interview to interview as I learned how to make the case. The resulting book brought me invitations to speak at conferences. And I was asked to co-curate a show called “Wheelz: The Art of the Ride” at the Columbus College of Art and Design. The book also led to my column at APR.
Jerry Weesner of Streetrodder Magazine (June 2002) picked Cool Cars, High Art as a Hall of Fame selection with only three other books on the art of customizing. He writes:
One consequence of the twentieth-century project to break down the barriers between popular and fine arts is the aesthetic discussion of objects and media not previously considered artistic, such as comic strips, photographs, quilts, and customized cars, the objects of DeWitt's incisive appreciation in this lavish book. Right off the bat, DeWitt discloses his investment in the subject with an account of his '50s Friday nights, which began by "attending to the hygiene" of his "metallic blue, nosed and decked, lowered 1953 Chevy." He belongs to the largest cohort of custom-car aficionados, former post-World War II teenagers who injected the new '50s youth culture into the small, mostly West Coast, working-class men's avocation of modifying stock cars into hot rods, capable of much greater speeds, and custom cars, intended to look much better than what rolled off the assembly lines. The marriage of custom cars and '50s youth fashions stuck, but before he ponders the implications of that, DeWitt backtracks. He explains why customizing is an art medium, demonstrating that customizers approach their work the same way fine artists do, and likening the ground rules of customizing to those of cubism and surrealism. He analyzes the various styles of customizing and distinguishes periods in the now 60-plus-year history of the practice. Finally, he weighs the symbiosis of the '50s and customizing and its implications for the future of customizing. Throughout, he refers with pinpoint pertinence to the 56 figures and 65 colorplates that make the book itself quite a dream machine.