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Yellow-Mercury-Carnival
Yellow Mercury Carnival

With a zingy, retro mashup of zooming model planes, sleek bullet shaped trains, dream automobiles with fins and bubble tops along with conceptual sketches, vintage posters, enlightening newsreels, and a fun selection of classic film clips, the new show Going Places at the Norton deftly captures the arc of design and futuristic thrill of getting from one place to another. Over two hundred objects fill the space, curated by Matthew Bird from the enormous collection of Palm Beach residents Jean and Frederic Sharf.

On view through January 10, 2016, Bird gave a tour of the exhibit prior to the public opening after a chat in the lobby comparing notes on local traffic. As a professor of Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design who organized last summer’s Wheels and Heels, Bird zoomed in on the Scharfs collection, looking for images and objects that tell a story not only about transportation but about how America saw itself getting around this vast open country through the decades.

As a collector Sharf has long been fascinated by how the pace of life accelerated in the middle of the 20th century and how it was turbo charged along via model planes, trains, and automobiles. Sharf came indirectly to his fascination with the transportation theme. A successful sports-marketing entrepreneur, he had been collecting Japanese woodblock prints and British imperial documents, but began buying architectural drawings, the presentations of planned buildings used to woo clients, that were often never built. The illustrations got him interested in automotive drawings.

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“The architects would draw cars beside the buildings,” Sharf said. “I started to wonder about those cars.”

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The dream cars were futuristic and detailed, placed into settings like cinematic desert roadways, slick city streets or parked outside leafy suburban dream houses.  Long and low, with sheer fins, dual exhaust pipes and swooping bodies, they are dream cars on paper. But many of the drawings made in Motor City Detroit’s studios, such as those of early Motorama and other concept cars, were destroyed and not archived in any way.

Saving those that remain, along with drawings for production cars and early advertising, became the self-appointed task of Sharf, who has almost single-handedly established car-design drawings as a subject worthy of art museums and scholars.

He has hundreds of sketches and paintings created in the studios of General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and other top American auto makers that dreamed up themes for future cars. Often rendered in pastel or charcoal or Prismacolor colored pencils, they encompass not only car history but an alternative history of things never made.

The best artist in the show is Carl Renner, whose large scale paintings on black backgrounds embody the 1950s cool. One of the largest pieces hung in the cafeteria at GM according to Bird. In 1945, after leaving Walt Disney’s design studio where he worked as a cartoon animator, Renner took his portfolio filled with automotive designs and went to General Motors Styling where he landed a job as a junior designer in the Orientation Studio. He was promoted to Senior Designer in 1946 and transferred to the Chevrolet Studio. From 1950 to 1955 Renner took an active part in the entire design process of the 1952 through 1957 Chevrolet models. Other Renner design contributions include the Corvette side cove, ducktail rear end, the streamlined roofline and the deluxe steering wheel, grilles, recessed hoods, the “notch belt” fender line, parking lights, bumper guards and side trim.

Renner passed away in 2001.

Sharf had to go underground to find many of these illustrations. He hooked up with researchers to seek out the estates of designers in Detroit and elsewhere. One main issue was that most drawings were destroyed onsite as security was tight in the design studios. For decades, designers lived in fear of the companies that employed them. There were exceptions, however, like Renner, who drew up ideas for Motorama cars and later production models for GM design chief Harley Earl in the 1950s.

“Renner told me that Earl gave him permission to take drawings home,” Sharf says. By the time Sharf came along, many of the design veterans had been long retired, and the companies seemed to have forgotten about security.

Of the Sharfs’ collection, Bird says, “The models are incredibly detailed. The concept sketches present radical new realities. The renderings show, in an amazingly vivid realistic way, what a design will look like long before it actually exists, and, the amount of communicating the objects do, about location, aspiration, technology, who we were, who we thought we could become, is amazing.”

Bird adds that, “Going Places is the story of how engineering and design ingenuity created the transportation options we so take for granted today, and how artists and designers developed amazing tools — wind-tunnel test models, cut-away models, detailed renderings — to communicate these advances while inventing new vehicles.”

Airplanes,-Boats,-Trains,-Trucks-Coloring-Book
Airplanes, Boats, Trains, Trucks Coloring Book

Bird has gone the extra mile, so to speak, in the display, with train car models that light up from the inside and model airplanes suspended in the air and displayed on a large pyramid with levels in the center of the room. I got a kick out of seeing a model plane from Mohawk Airlines, the company that was a client of the ad agency on TV’s hit retro show Mad Men.

There are model cars made from panted wood by student designers, film clips from a wacky selection of movies like Alfred Hitchcock’s films that always had characters traveling or running from cars and planes. James Bond film clips abound with Jetpacks, space ships and Bond’s exotic fleet of cars that held an arsenal of weapons. The room is painted cool shades of blue and gray that invoke the great wide open sky and horizons seen from roadways.

Interestingly enough, collector Sharf is not interested in owning the cars in the drawings. “I drive a ten-year-old Mercedes that embarrasses my housekeeper,” he says. “I’m interested in the people — and the stories.”

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The Norton Museum is located at 1451 S. Olive Ave. in West Palm Beach
For information about this exhibit, call (561) 832-5196 or visit www.norton.org.

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Sandra-Schulman Sandra Schulman is an arts writer, music and film producer. Born in Miami, her work has appeared in Billboard, Variety, Rolling Stone, Ocean Drive, Country Music Magazine, The New York Daily News, News From Indian Country, and Entertainment Weekly. She was an entertainment columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel for 8 years. She has authored three books on pop culture. She currently lives in West Palm Beach with her blue eyed whippet. Sandra Schulman’s column appears weekly. Contact her at sandraslink@gmail.com.

Going Places Gets There in Style. Review of the the New Show at the Norton Museum of Art: “Going Places” On View Through January 10, 2016