The Motorcycle as Objet D'art

More and more lately, the world is catching up to what we all know well; a motorcycle, at it’s most refined and realized, is an object of high art.

The Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis, IN,  is offering up a gallery exhibit  of sublime motorcycles. Assembled by curator White Wolf James, the current exhibit pays homage to Western culture and two-wheeled transportation.

The motorcycle as high art? About damn time if you ask us.

At their best, motorcycles have a built-in set of metaphorical connections to human experience and the the very idea of a motorcycle strikes a chord within nearly everyone on the planet. The list of associations and imagery related to motorcycles is  a long one indeed. From freedom to anarchy to danger and fear, the motorcycle inspires nearly the whole range of human emotion – for good or for ill depending upon your frame of reference.

Indian motorcycle by renowned motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter

The Focus of the Exhibit

James, the curator of this particular paean to all things bikes, says the focus of his collection is very specific.

“All of the bikes are related to the West,” James said. “They have Western subject matter or are related to Western people. Evel Knievel jumped in Butte, Mont. Most of his famous jumps were in the West. People should come see the exhibit and see how it fits into our mission.”

And putting them all in one place? Not an easy climb for him at all as he had to badger the owners of these prime machines to get them to museum.

Among them, Former U.S. Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado was convinced to  send his ’98 Harley-Davidson Road King to be included, and it was no mean feat to cajole the Smithsonian to send Evel Knievel’s bike (along with a priceless 1902 Indian)

According to James, most of the bikes are from private collections and many have rarely – if ever – been displayed for the public .

“It was by the skin of my teeth that I was able to get some of these bikes. I still can’t believe it all came together, ” he said.

So What Can You Eyeball in the Collection?

There are some 24 bikes which include six Indians, 13 Harley-Davidsons and custom-built machines from Orange County Choppers and Cowboy Customs. The oldest? The 1902 Indian. The newest? A custom board track racer designed and built specifically for the museum show by Cut Throat Customs.

You’ll recognize several. A special section with three movie bikes includes the Harley-Davidson “Dragon Bike” ridden by Peter Fonda in “The Wild Angels,” 1968 Harley-Davidson “Captain America” motorcycle used in “Easy Rider” and a copy of the 1953 Harley-Davidson “Chino” Bobber ridden in “The Wild One.”

The most famous machine in the exhibit is easily Evel Knievel’s 1972 Harley-Davidson XR750. This is the bike the American stuntman and cultural icon crashed during his attempt to jump 13 buses at London’s Wembley Stadium.

James has also done his home work and has a clear understanding of the evolution of cultural attitudes toward motorcycles and the people who have felt compelled to ride them over the years.

“Before World War II, motorcycling in America was clean wholesome fun,” James said. “They were popular with women and movie stars.”


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