It’s the inevitable question you ask yourself after—and during—your tour of the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. What is cool? Who is cool? The curators of this lively show have come up with some answers, even as they claim not to have made personal judgments regarding their 100 selections. The notes accompanying the exhibit tell us that 1940s jazz saxophonist Lester Young popularized this originally African American concept. Cool became a “password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism.” Further, each person featured in the show has to possess at least three of the following:
- An original artistic vision carried off with a singular style
- Cultural rebellion or transgression for a generation
- Iconic power, or instant visual recognition
- A recognized cultural legacy
This large and absorbing show, organized chronologically from “The Birth of Cool,” to the “Legacy of Cool,” features stunning photographs by greats such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, and Richard Avedon.
Here are my coolest cats and kitties seen in the show (in no particular order):
“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983. How could you not name this highly original artist, even as we’ve all chucked our fishnets, bustiers, and finger-less gloves (wait a minute—those have made a texting come-back) in the Salvation Army bin. Madonna remains the ultimate chameleon of cool.
In the space labeled “Cool and Counterculture,” we come upon “Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010. The gorgeous inky blacks in this portrait embody the smoldering potency of this actor’s creative talent and penchant for playing complicated rogues.
“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976, captures the poet/musician’s rough-edged androgyny and the rawness of 1970s New York she epitomizes.
Who wouldn’t vote for Jimi Hendrix as an exemplar of all the criteria (and a few more) listed above? Here he is in a photo by Linda McCartney, looking so young, with his puckish grin and sidelong glance—the quintessential trickster. What a loss!
“Roots of Cool” gives us this exquisite portrait of Lauren Bacall by Albert Eisenstaedt, 1949. Loved the quote by an anonymous critic of the day, summing up Bacall as “slinky as a lynx, hot as pepper, cool as rain, and dry as smoke.”
Ah, yes, the avatar of cool, “Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon (speaking of whom, where is he in this show? Where are any photographers?), 1965. This image speaks for itself, hurtling the viewer back in time (viewers of a certain age anyway) to when the arrival of a new Dylan album was cause for celebration and then slavish listening, all the while marveling at how he could manage to conjure exactly what we were thinking, feeling, and exploring at the time.
“Bessie Smith,” a protégé of Ma Rainey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, was one tough cookie, we learn, managing her own vaudeville troupe and single-handedly running off a menacing advance by the Klan. I grew up with a hissing 78 recording of “Taint Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” In this song you can hear the inspiration for Bonnie Raitt (also featured in the show) and Janis Joplin, who put up half the money for a new headstone for Smith in 1970.
“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936, with his impeccable line and perfect timing, is almost too cool, entirely lacking in the funky experimentation of, say, the Nicholas Brothers of the same era. And while I’m grousing, I’ll air my biggest complaint about this show: Astaire is the only dancer in it. I’m not including Madonna who, yes, is a great dancer, but she’s many other things as well, and it could be argued, is primarily known as a singer. Where is Martha Graham? Josephine Baker? Gregory Hines?
The incomparable “Lady Day,” here photographed by Bob Willoughby in 1951, was described by Duke Ellington himself as the “essence of cool.” My father’s record collection included the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which eerily embodies both the horror of a lynching with Day’s own tragic demise.
Shifting gears, we come to another iconic singer, “Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956. Critic Robert Christgau said of Sinatra that he “turned English into American and American into music.” The “rat pack” appellation originated, we learn, with Lauren Bacall, who, upon seeing Sinatra, Bogart, and cronies, said they looked “like a rat pack.”
I’m trying to stick to a “boy girl boy girl” order here, but am finding it difficult—could it be that coolness is a male trait? Nah, take a gander at “Deborah Harry,” of “Blondie” fame, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978. Love that tough girl/pretty girl look, her uncompromising stare, no apologies—she’s not posing—she’s seen it all.
I’m reluctant to add Susan Sarandon to my roll call, not because I don’t think she’s cool, but because I’m a bit over-exposed to actors at this point. That’s my other criticism of this otherwise marvelous show: too heavy on show biz. Where is Charles Eames? Not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes, writers are well-represented (Zora Neal Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs), but not Zelda and F. Scott, to my mind cultural icons of the first order.
See what I mean? The show will start a debate in your mind, and a conversation with whomever joins you there. Do see it—you’ll meet such emblematically cool figures as Lou Reed, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Steve McQueen, Lenny Bruce, Jackson Pollock, and Miles Davis. The show is on until September 7, 2014.
And, last but not least, here’s your fearless art blogger herself commenting on “What is cool?” for the BBC:
Wait for it—I’m in the last third of the piece. Fun!