Taking the Museum Out For a Spin

Paul McCarthy behind the wheel of Jason Rhoades’ Car Project

By Ingrid Schaffner

Jason Rhoades in front of his “IMPALA (International Museum Project About Leaving and Arriving),” Kunsthaus Zürich, 1998 © The Estate of Jason Rhoades

  • 23 February 2024

In the summer of 1998, Jason Rhoades parked a burgundy Chevrolet Impala SS on the plaza of the Kunsthaus Zurich, where it represented his participation in a group show and performed in a number of ways: It was an outdoor sculpture, installed in relationship to works by Miro, Calder and other artists in the Kunsthaus collection; it was a museum for the collection of “minor works by major artists” that Rhoades intended to amass during the course of the show, and it was, at the end of the day, also a car. Rhoades, based in Los Angeles, used the Impala whenever he was in Zurich as his local transportation and for business trips. (There was a major exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Nuremburg, Germany to check in on, for example.) He also invited others to use it. His friends, the artist Paul McCarthy and his wife, Karen, took the car on a two-day spin around Switzerland. The museum space where Rhoades parked his art in Zurich must have frequently been empty.

On view again twenty-six years later, the Impala prompted a recent conversation with McCarthy about the trip, along with McCarthy’s overall sense of Rhoades’ car as a conceptual work of art. The occasion was “DRIVE,” a yearlong exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles that sets out to explore, through a series of changing installations, an entire body of work that Rhoades called his Car Projects, in which wild ideas come to rest in everyday vehicles. Parked in the gallery alongside three other vehicles, the Impala literally spells out the artist’s intention for viewers to see it as more than a car. Black vinyl lettering adhered to the body just above both rear wheels reads: 


Detail from Jason Rhoades’ “IMPALA (International Museum Project About Leaving and Arriving)” © The Estate of Jason Rhoades. Photo: Keith Lubow

Storage boxes of archival material from Jason Rhoades’ “IMPALA (International Museum Project About Leaving and Arriving),” 1998 © The Estate of Jason Rhoades. Photo: Keith Lubow

According to Rhoades, the “project of leaving and arriving” was based on a uniquely American approach to experience. “In LA you find a place to park, then you pull in and leave your car. Everything…is dependent on this experience,” he explained in a statement published in Artforum magazine at the time of the Zurich exhibition. Rhoades considered making his theories accessible to people integral to the construction of his work. As “DRIVE” unfolds, so will the narratives of the Car Projects be elaborated—growing ever more complex and humorous—through related works of art, archival materials and printed matter. As oil is a vehicle for pigment, so is the car a space for artistic creation, we learn from Rhoades in a long-form video interview. In 1998, he also made an artist’s book, Volume: A Rhoades Referenz, a dictionary companion to his work that is rife with illuminating entries about his vehicular interests: APPROACH, CAR PROJECTS, GRAND PRIX, SCRAP YARD…. 

McCarthy says that borrowing the car as an artist came with the implicit expectation that he would leave something in it; it was a museum project after all. He also seemed to recall the radio playing an American station. His daughter Mara, who joined her parents for part of the trip, said the soundtrack must have been one of Rhoades’ many taped recordings of Power 106-FM, the Los Angeles hip-hop station, loaded in the cassette deck. Enjoying themselves as tourists, Paul and Karen drove around lakes and mountains towards St. Bernhard Pass, Switzerland’s highest road, stopping to eat, as they liked to do no matter where in the world they were, at McDonald’s. From empty Big Mac wrappers, sacks of fries and beverage cups, they created an assemblage, which they didn’t so much install as chuck piece by piece into the back seat space of the Impala.

The idea that you never know for certain where the car is…is part of the project.”—Jason Rhoades

Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, 1992

The Impala already held two installations, Sylvie Fleury’s Chanel 22 in the glove box and in the trunk an homage to Dieter Roth’s Staple Cheese (A Race). A legendary conceptual art work from 1970, Roth’s piece consisted of thirty-seven suitcases full of rotting cheese that had disappeared after being exhibited at Eugenia Butler Galley in Los Angeles that summer. Though Paul McCarthy arrived in Los Angeles shortly after that exhibition had closed, its strong impact remained palpable. As a professor at UCLA, he went on to make Roth’s piece a canonical work in a pedagogy that centered Fluxus and Performance art over traditional object-making. This was core curriculum for Rhoades, who entered the MFA program specifically to study with McCarthy and who paid tribute to his teachings by giving a backpack full of cheese snacks—industrially made and impervious to rot—a hallowed spot in the rear space of the Impala museum. The gesture also allegedly came with Roth’s blessing after Rhoades sought him out during a pilgrimage to Marseilles in 1997 to experience what turned out to be the last major installation by Roth in his lifetime.    

The cheese, the Chanel bottles, the McDonald’s trash … McCarthy speculates the entire collection was thrown away when it came time to ship Rhoades’ car back to America; no traces were found in any of the large cardboard boxes labeled “IMPALA MUSEUM” in Rhoades’ storage. The boxes do contain other interesting material, some of which will be displayed during the run of “DRIVE” —for example, an especially intriguing piece of cardboard, perforated into a grid and stamped with names including Dumas, Gober, Graham, Khedoori, Kippenberger, Nauman, Pettibon, Polke, Richter and West. Was this a sheet of tickets Rhoades intended to issue to other major artists he hoped would contribute minor works to his Impala museum? 

By European standards, the Chevrolet was big and, to some degree, fast. Of his Swiss road trip, McCarthy recalls racing a BMW just for the fun of it. The definitive moment of the trip, however, happened on the return to Zurich, a key act for McCarthy in the context of Rhoades’ overall project. The car possessed a specific context in front of the Kunsthaus. Driving the Impala back onto the museum’s plaza was a keenly conscious exercise in putting back something that had been taken away and transformed in the process. McCarthy parked the car and he and Karen walked away from a sculpture.

Jason Rhoades. DRIVE’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Downtown Los Angeles, February 27, 2024 through January 14, 2025.