A First Look at BMW’s Wild New Art Car

December 1, 2016, 12:30 AM UTC

In 1975, in a now-epic flash of cultural innovation, BMW debuted its first Art Car. The “canvas” was a 3.0 CSL, its famous livery was painted in characteristic color-block glory by Alexander Calder. The project, dreamed up by French race car driver and art collector Hervé Poulain, was meant to intertwine his two passions at the highest levels. Luckily for Poulain, the powers at be at BMW agreed to fund his vision; how better to turn the science of high-speed engineering into a visual that would draw in the rest of the world with the allure of seeing important art in motion on TV instead of only in museums?

Since that groundbreaking moment, BMW has continued the tradition, inviting artists such as Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Jenny Holzer and Jeff Koons, among others, to transform Bavarian sheet metal into modern masterpieces.

And today, at Miami’s 2016 Art Basel, the latest, #19, was unveiled—a graphically stunning work by contemporary icon John Baldessari. In advance of that, Fortune got exclusive time with its maker a few weeks ago while he finished painting his Art Car.

Chris Tedesco/BMW North America
Chris Tedesco Chris Tedesco/BMW North America

Baldessari, for anyone living under a rock for the last several decades, is a Southern California-based artist known for his use of text, found images and bright colors to create seemingly simple yet dramatic and profound statements. Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger both cite Baldessari as directly influential to their own art. The cleverest—and briefest—tutorial is a short film narrated by Tom Waits.

I met up with Baldessari in a nondescript BMW delivery center near Port Hueneme, in Oxnard, Calif. The day I was there, Baldessari and his apprentice were putting the final brushstrokes on the bodywork of a white M6 GTLM that BMW’s Bill Auberlan will race at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January.

Baldessari, well over six feet tall and 85 years old, was carefully painting a large red dot onto the roof of the car—one of his most well-known motifs. On the driver’s door was one word: FAST. On the passenger’s door was an ironically self-referencing image of the car itself. More pops of primary colors and circles decorated the remaining surfaces.

I asked Baldessari why, with all the words at his disposal, did he choose “fast?” “Because a race car’s never slow!” he exclaimed.

What made him decide to do an Art Car in the first place? “Well, they paid me, obviously,” the soft-voiced artist said with a laugh. “But I had never done anything three-dimensional before, so it was a great challenge. Since I finished the design for the car, I’ve started to work on other sculptural forms—a giant carrot, for example.”

And why the red dot on the roof? “I watched some racing and realized that they are covered from above, so I figured it would make the car that much more identifiable.”

It’s rare to meet a legend, so I took advantage of the moment by pulling out an orange ceramic plate I had brought from home—my own makeshift Baldessari dot. “I didn’t know how else to meet you except to use your own symbol of ‘I’m not worthy,’” I explained, holding it over my face the way he obscures faces in his art. Baldessari laughed with surprise and called the photographer over.

All of which begs the question: if a picture’s worth a thousand words, what is a BMW Art Car worth?

Almost as much as that photo is to me.