INTERNATIONAL – The first thing Anthony James did when he finally started making real money was to buy a 1998 Ferrari F355 Spider.
Not long after, he burned it—on purpose.
“I used to live in the East Village. The car would usually be parked outside, and it was a bit damaged anyway, so I had to do something with it,” the British-born, Los Angeles-based artist said recently during an interview at his studio in downtown L.A. The car had been worn through extensive driving and New York winters.
He drove it up to Kingston, N.Y., and sanded the car’s paint. Then he “set it on fire, let it rust, and put it in a gigantic vitrine,” he says. The glass display case contained the stems of young birch trees, like those the ancient Greeks used to symbolize an offering to the gods. It was lit along the edges with bright LED lights; the bottom and top contained specialized mirrors to amplify the effect.
James showed the work to private collectors and to patrons of MoMA at his studio in New York and in a gallery in Los Angeles. But he made it for himself, he says: “I guess most people would have just sold [the car], but then I went and made an artwork out of it.”
He called the work Kalos Thanatos, which is Greek for “beautiful death.” When he describes it, he uses such words as “sacrifice.”
“I liked The Illiad at the time—this idea of going to battle and becoming immortalized in death,” says James, who counts collectors from L.A. to Germany to Indonesia. The 45-year-old alumnus of Central Saint Martins, a London art school, grew up with a poster of a Ferrari F40 on his wall, equally obsessed with [Italian design house] Scaglietti and Miami Vice. Torching the Italian sports car pained him.
Kalos Thanatos resides with a collector now. Twelve years on, James’s latest works are rather more polished, if no less born of Italian supercars. They don’t involve ruin, for one thing. Over the past six months, he has fabricated two Ferrari bodies from archival-grade metal—a life-size 1957 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa in bronze and a life-size 1967 Ferrari P4 in aluminum—then set each car on powder-coated metal stands. A 1962 250 GTO in copper is still underway.
Each Ferrari is polished to a mirror-like sheen and is priced at $325,000—before installation. The single-car series is called “Repose.”
“With the 355 Spider piece, it was about burning a false icon, really,” James says. “I do love Ferrari—they are iconic to me—but these pieces depict that you’re not going to find happiness from the emptiness inside material possessions. You’re going to find happiness inside yourself.”
How It’s Done
The process of making the cars, done totally by hand in the U.S., takes five months. First, James selects the car he wants to portray. The plan is to eventually honor all of history’s iconic Ferraris, though paying tribute to Porsche’s famous 917 race car that won the 24 of Le Mans in 1970 isn’t out of the question.
“Whatever the brand, they must be exemplary automotive specimens: the apex of power, form, function, and aesthetics,” James says. “I’m memorializing them in performative stillness so they become monuments, or memories of their own pasts.”
Next, James builds a modeling device called a buck, which is a real-size, plywood rendition of the car. It is used to provide the blueprint for fabricators to follow with metal.
Then James selects the medium. Each metal is intentional: Copper is a soft, delicate, feminine, warm element, he notes. Its surface will transform over time, eventually showing its age via a milky green patina. Bronze is the most classic sculptural material; its unique and significant weight and depth enrich its dark coloration over time. Aluminum is the most abundant metallic element in the Earth’s crust. It is lightweight and malleable, with an intrinsic ability to both reflect light and resist corrosion. (“My favorite car of the bunch is the GTO — the reason why I chose copper for that one because it’s red; it looks very feminine,” James says. He used aluminum for the first of the series, the P4, since it’s the easiest metal of the three to shape, and he wanted to start off easy. The Bronze went to car No. 2, the TR, )
Using ancient metalworking techniques and such tools as a hammer and English wheel, a fabricator works the raw sheets of metal into the basic form of each car. The method combines chasing and repoussé, often used in conjunction with one another to transform natural elements into manufactured shapes. Chasing is striking sheets of metal from the top; repoussé is driving the metal forward from below.
“The technique itself is an example of how, via their fabrication alone, these sculptures embody contradiction and spirituality,” James says. “As above, so below.”
All told, it takes 600 hammer hits to bend each of the body’s metal panels, dozens of hours complete welding them together, and two weeks of polishing each panel in a five-stage process to make them gleam.
“The curves, the air vents, the hinging compartment—this is all incredibly difficult,” James says. “But the panels are the hardest to make. If you get it a bit wrong, then it’s very wrong.”
Walk around the cars and their polished sides will evoke World War II bombers. The craftsmanship of each weld line reflects the precision of surgical steel. The curves of their fenders harken back to the halcyon years of Italian motorsport.
The final stage is to mount a piece on its sandblasted and Vantablack powder-coated rectangular stand. Then admire it. Repose will premiere as the first post-Covid-19 show at the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, Calif., later this year.