Skylar Williams was raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, the gaudy, mafia-created casino town in the sere landscape John Ford idealized in films like The Searchers, 1956, whose main drag was called the Strip. He is an acolyte of highway culture, and a photographer who learned aesthetics by reconstituting street rides and muscle cars. His father is a first-generation car head, a boomer for whom freedom of expression rose out of Ford’s assembly line and fighting union men whose independent spirit was often abetted by after hours “shade tree” work fixing cars for extra money. Father taught son to bring cars back to life. They specialized in muscle cars (see the full list below), although they’ve also renewed a 1962 Porsche, 1966 Jaguar XKE, two Chevrolet four-wheel drives, and a Cadillac Seville. Each one was meticulously, holistically refurbished; each embodied what Wagner called a Gesmantkunstwerk — a total artwork, which for Wagner meant the libretto, score, and set design of an opera. The crafted Gesmantkunstwerk in these cars epitomized the erotic mores of highway culture’s radio roads, escapist sex, and individuality. They sing the spirituals of independent frontier people in operatic symbols of the fading West.
The American muscle car is a product of the eight-cylinder, V-8 engine. Unlike smaller European sports cars, with chassis made for curves, muscle cars were built for short, straight racing or large oval tracks, but also for showing off. The term itself, from the late 1960s, is defined in the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “any of a group of American-made two-door sports coupes with powerful engines designed for high-performance driving.” The first of its type was the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket, which, with its 303-cubic-inch, high-compression, overhead valve V-8 engine, and two-barrel carburetor, could reach 135 horsepower at 3600 rpm.
Faster cars re-landscaped postwar America. Teen drivers, transfixed by rock ‘n’ roll music, invented new ways to talk, drive, listen, and socialize. We still talk in their truncated argot. Many had their first sex in the back seat of a family-sized car. Affordable used cars inspired them to invent the hot rod. Hot rods were to freedom what rock ‘n’ roll was to sex. Cars and sex called out to everyone. Their clothes, cars, music, and language were art forms. Muscle cars, for those who could afford them, were smaller, lighter, family-sized vehicles with the biggest engines on the commercial market, which could be tricked out to go even faster. Hot rod culture grew fastest in California, where you could leave the top down and not fret about weather or rust. But whether from West, Midwest, South, North, or East, cars were as powerful a fix as rock ‘n’ roll.
California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin — a master of patience and perception, and of light as form and space as content — related a story, in his book with Lawrence Wechsler, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Irwin, a hot rodder as a teen, tried to explain to a New York art critic named Max (perhaps Kozloff) that customizing cars was an art form, if only a folk art. He took Max to see a friend in the process of building a 1932 Ford street rod from the ground up. Irwin showed Max how each nut, bolt, surface, and support, inside and out, was carefully and aesthetically considered: how the car would be made, how it would look, and how the interior, body, chassis, drive train, and wheels would fit together into a Gesmantkunstwerk “It’s not art,” the critic said. Irwin abandoned him on the roadside, letting him take a lackadaisical bus. What did he know? Irwin saw hot-rodding as artistic craft. Cars weren’t show in galleries. They were street art.
(Decades later Richard Prince, a boomer who grew up like many of us — listening, watching, hating school, playing music, knowing cars, and learning about art, because we liked the process and the freedom — made sculptures out of fiberglass car hoods, polished fuel injectors, intake manifolds, and entire muscle cars.)
Most of the cars in this book were built before 1973 and refurbished better than new by Skylar and his dad in their Vegas garage. These are valued collectibles, but still driven the way old Fender guitars are still played. Cars and guitars die unused. The cars were the fruit of roads so long and straight that, without a radio to fix a rhythm, human eyes were unable focus the distance while flying across the vast plains of sky country. The muscle car was the land craft of the Space Age, gifted to us at a time when just about everything could be fixed in the basement or garage; when such repairs helped to support a middle-class lifestyle. That art critics did not see hot rods as art, or even folk art, only made sense to Manhattan elitists who didn’t need cars anyway and who’d dedicated their lives to the nobility of modernism, which by 1956, the Year of the Teenager, was starting to molt into polymorphous contemporary art. All this happened in the period of the American muscle car, from the mid-Fifties to the early Seventies. The engine, the ride, the styling, the temperament, the roads, and the scale were different. Artists like Irwin and Robert Rauschenberg (and Richard Prince) were as distinct from European artists as Corvettes and Mustangs were from Porsches and Jaguar XKEs.
In America, to quote a friend, the photographer Lewis Baltz, “everything happened next to a highway.” These cars are now the national icons of a country that still separates population by state-issued driver’s licenses, that has no national identity card, and that bases individual freedom on an art form Jack Kerouac turned into poetry in his epic novel, On the Road.
Life needs death and resurrection to repeat itself. Art and religion follow these hard but basic tenets.
Skylar first came to Paris during Fashion Week a few years ago. He snuck in on the runways by claiming to be a model. He now shoots girls on those runways and brings his vision of motion into pictures that could be fashion plates for these sex machines. We met because he was shooting runway models for Purple Fashion, where I’m an editor. We discovered a common interest. I’d grown up around hot rodding and, as a teenager, had worked the counter at Big Ed’s Speed Shop in Alexandria, Virginia. Skylar knows cars in his hands, inside and out. The sleek forms he rescued from ruin reflect and refract the landscape they altered, which changed us. They are our Grecian urns and African masks, the artworks of some future museum. His work, fixing and photographing them, proclaims their resurrection.