Artform Magazine

Artform Magazine

October, 1970

“Don Potts’

Game of Car”

photo: M d”Hamer


“ simulate a shadow flying along the ground...”

by Knute Stiles

The game is process: find an abstract function and think out the most appropriate material for the function.  Even the most appropriate material has its own nature, and to use it with a feeling that the material is being used in an optimum way naturally bends the initial function; not exactly changes it, but moves the focus. Don Potts is a builder--artist of the experimental turn of mind necessary to make the process game a working method.  He begins with a tentative function and reads the next step out of the possibilities as they present themselves.  When an object is perfectly crafted there is a tendency to assume that all planning has been prior to the making of the object. This may be true for many artists who make it simple, finish it with craft, and hope to realize the complexities through other serial examinations of the possibilities. Potts has gone through many serial possibilities in the growth of a single increasingly complex organism.  He invents, appropriates, composites materials, blending all function into the building of a mechanical organism.  The first object his game has produced is a car.

Don Potts’s car began its three and a half year process of growth and changes with the simplest intentions.  It was to be a pedestal for various aerodynamic body accessories which would hold a car down, not lift as in a plane, but reverse, using wind that the thing itself would stir up by its speed to hold itself firmly down.

These reverse action fins or wings were the meat of the motivating fantasy; they held the initial sculptural promise.  The pedestal could be a simple thing, a sort of chassis to simulate the car that might use such an aerodynamic accessory. Now the pedestal is complete and he is building and planning three variations on the body idea. One is in mock-up, and he has completed one prototype flat fin.  This fin is milled like the inside of a cigarette case, but with the milling elongated out of its whorls to suggest a very mechanical feather. The fins will be mounted bilaterally on regulatable fulcrums, and will visor the air in the way the first model of land-travel machine in some parallel reality might have done.

The chassis is 114 inches at the wheel base. It has 27.5-inch high racing bicycle wheels on the front, and the rear ones are a composite of parts of bikes and of parts machined for this specific purpose. The overall length with wheels is 141 inches.  It is only 1.5 inches off the ground, and almost the whole chassis is beneath the hubs of the wheels; the height at the center of the top of the frame is 16 inches.  Slung thus below its center of gravity the machine anticipates the aerodynamic body that will serve it. It is built to simulate a shadow flying along the ground..



photo: Eric W. Cheney

In the tentative preconception the chassis had no need to be motorized other than, perhaps, a small motor to activate the body fins.  Potts began structuring the chassis without much thought about a motor. The power plant idea cropped up when he ran onto a target drone airplane with a 4-cylinder, air cooled, horizontally opposed, 2-cyle engine. The fuel is methanol alcohol with the oil mixed directly into the fuel. It makes a good dramatic tearing blast of sound, which contributes to the image, but also introduced another factor: the airplane motor was radio controlled.  The plans had never given room for a passenger or driver, but this increased the singular illusion of a car that could go though its paces without a visible hand, the hand being elsewhere activation the radio switches. The radio was set up with the aid of one of Potts’ students at the University of California at Berkeley who knew radio. It had ten channels: 1. On 2. Steer left 3. Steer right 4. Fast speed steering 5. Accelerate 6. Decelerate 7. Faster variants of 5 and 6, 8. Brake 9. Body fins up 10. Body fins down.

The cylinders of the air cooled motor have fins for wind cooling with increased surface to dissipate heat, but these Potts enclosed in transparent plastic jackets which are attached to a centrifugal blower.  The blower is the car organism’s respiratory system (Potts was very conscious of the way the thing was both very organic, and absolutely mechanical at the same time.)  The centrifugal blower is driven by a long belt with pulleys that lace it intricately along the frame.



photo: Eric W. Cheney

The elaborate chrome-plated exhaust manifold is primarily visual.  It actually causes some back pressure, thus keeping the car idling when standing still, slowing the motor when moving, and keeping the noise down a few decibels. But it is certainly the visual evidence that you are looking at an organic thing.

The car is a composite of parts from many places.  Very few of the parts were originally manufacture for cars.  The carburetor is a common enough car variation. The battery is from a motorcycle, as are the spring and shock assemblies.  The hydraulic system is of an aircraft design.  The racing bicycle wheels, which the aircraft design.  The racing bicycle wheels, which the aircraft hydraulic system drives, cant inward toward the turn, the inside wheel canting more than the outside one, evidence of the wheels’ bike origins—they lean into a turn. The transmission is industrial, of the same sort you might find on a conveyor belt. There is an eight-inch disc brake of the sort usual to cars, but this one brakes the drive line before the differential;  there are no brakes on the wheels.  The clutch is centrifugal with no gear changes.

The frame is of cold steel struts homogeneously welded (with welding seams carefully ground back to the rectangle) which structure an air frame determined by accommodation to the motor parts in cooperation with a sculptural image of elongated triangles. The skeletal structure of the frame and the motor parts are somewhat similar to an anatomical chart, the parts fitting together like a body.

The paint job has a gray lacquer base coat under a Murano glaze. Murano is a pigment of minute, transparent crystals sprayed on in the same lacquer medium as the undercoat.  The result is a very luminous gray; on the surface that reflect a highlight there is a greenish yellow glow, and on the shadow sides the gray is lavender, the crystal having broken the gray color to both the sweet and sour sides of the spectrum.  (The first trial paint job had been white.  The white had forced too great a contrast with the blacks and chromes, but Potts still wanted it to be neutral, not infer an obvious symbol by virtue of its color, so he tried a black and gray, and then gave it the Murano coat which haloized it and heightened its jewel-like preciosity.)

For years the commercial designers of cars used tantalizing symbols of animals, usually  dragonesque or shark like, incorporating the lights and grill assemblies into staring eyes and grimacing mouths, but this reference to a totemic ancestor of the machine-beast was only skin deep; the impression was only the shape of the shell.  The working parts were ordered by the exigencies of the half-automated fabrication process and, with a few notable exceptions, had the look of that which is normally concealed. In Pott’s car the look of the vital parts is of obvious importance; the aerodynamic accessories will not conceal it, and besides it is to be regarded as a completed work without any body cover. Pott’s objective was to make his car really look like its actual mechanical function.  The bilateral symmetry of most animal, insect and bird physiology is likely to dominate the thinking of anyone trying to build an object which will move about independently.

This is a man-car. The artist of this generation who never lived in a world where the horse was a universally recognized symbol of man, has no need to symbolizes a beast of burden, but instead symbolizes man himself moving across the land with wheels. Probably the centaur in classical mythology seemed less freakish in a culture where feeling almost part of a horse was a daily experience of that majority who rode horses. Now the car is our familiar.  We try to understand and sympathize with our car, but we naturally tend to fantasize a more idea model.

Prior to retiring to the shop to pursue the game of car, Potts was showing pieces which could be characterized as kinetic sculpture though they had no moving parts- that’s to say, they could be moved, indeed were built to incite the act of moving them, even in defiance of the “do not touch” sign; they rocked. Still another piece from the pre-car game period was called Up Tight—Out of Sight (1966), and was the first one of his sculptures that had moving parts.  One did have to activate it by touching it, however, it was about eight feet square, of beautifully crafted and inlaid wood, perhaps a little lower than a normal coffee table, but suggestive of that article.  When someone touched its edge it opened in the middle revealing a fur edge, and quietly closed again. Or one could push it, in which case it would move up and down, the fur edges brushing each other as they passed.  Perhaps the car has become as complex as it is because the subject kept opening up possibilities to be resolved.

Though cars have figured in the fantasy life of many Americans for years it has largely been left out of art. Moreover the fantasy is about a machine that would give one the thrill of engagement, and the power of controlling wild or demanding thing.  The commercial car has increasingly become a boat like thing, built for aloof comfort rather than challenge and engagement.  To provide a car that began to suggest the machine-beast of our fantasy it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Potts’s  car not only provides the needed model, but suggests a further extension of the visionary daydream, a space vehicle, an automated scout for other-worldly reconnaissance.


photo: M d”Hamer

With the decline of the horse culture the horse became romantic symbol of the past.  Now that the car’s decline and replacement is imminent, we have come to see the private car as an even greater object of nostalgic appeal.  It took an artist who grew up in California, where the car has had it s greatest boom, to realize an apotheosis model.  Potts’s car was built to be stored in heaven as an epitaph to the car, now that the car must soon cease to exist.  The car having matched its waste with man’s own, it may soon be impossible in many places on earth for either men or cars to breathe. I suppose the people still have a veto right, and it will be the car which succumbs first.  The message of the apotheosis model becomes; This is how the car could have been if the game had been this honest the first time.



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