Pierre Koenig Archive, Getty Research Institute
ANDOVER, Mass. — The cool was born in New York. It was in Manhattan that Miles Davis and the nine-piece group he convened in the late 1940s forged a tightly understated alternative to the hot expressionism of bebop and recorded the hugely influential tracks later collected in the album “Birth of the Cool.” But it was in California in the 1950s that cool jazz and cool art in general took root and flourished.
The story is well told in “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury,” an exhibition here at the Addison Gallery of American Art. Organized by Elizabeth Armstrong, chief curator at the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, Calif., where it originated, the show examines cool style of the ’50s in several disciplines, including painting, furniture design, architecture, film and photography.
The multidisciplinary approach could be confusing, but it all hangs together in ways both entertaining and thought provoking. What emerges is not just a style but a spirit and an ethos that are in many ways diametrically opposite those of East Coast Abstract Expressionism. Angst-free, not monumental, anti-grandiose: California cool is laid back yet cleanly articulated, impersonal yet intimate, strict yet hedonistic, and seriously playful.
Unlike many avant-garde artists of the New York school, the painters most centrally identified with the cool style in California don’t seem to have been trying to revolutionize their medium. An early label for the work of the four best-known practitioners — Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, Lorser Feitelson and John McLaughlin — was “abstract classicism,” which overstates their conservatism but highlights the formal equilibrium they sought.
Mr. Benjamin, the most appealing, worked in a lively, late Cubist style, creating compositions of flat, sharp-edged, richly colored, overlapping and interlocking shapes that are easy to imagine decorating the covers of paperback books or serving as backgrounds for movie credits. Today they look almost shockingly fresh, and so do the only slightly less vivid geometric paintings of Mr. Hammersley and Mr. Feitelson.
Mr. McLaughlin’s grid-based paintings exude a greater formal austerity. They are composed of smooth, flat rectangles of black, white, off-white and gray with blocks of color strategically inserted here and there. Inspired by Asian art and Zen Buddhism, they have a monastic air about them, but they are suave and materially sensuous too.
While paintings make the biggest visual impact in the show, the architectural photographs of Julius Shulman convey an expanded sense of the world of California cool. The exhibition presents some of Mr. Shulman’s sleek, luminous pictures of the Case Study houses, a series of midcentury works by Richard Neutra, Eero Saarinen and other architects that were meant to show the adaptability of Modernist principles to residential housing.
In Mr. Shulman’s glamorous pictures, which, unusually for architectural photography, included live models, there is a dreamy vision of the good life: a combination, one imagines, of cocktails, sex and jazz on the hi-fi. California cool looks like the product of an optimism and confidence born of post-World War II economic prosperity and seemingly unlimited room for growth.
There is a certain innocence about some aspects of California cool. The extraordinarily inventive Charles and Ray Eames went about their business of designing snazzy, unpretentious, eminently functional chairs, tables and other domestic furnishings without any of the utopian urgency to which early Modernist architects and designers were prone. In the show their short films of spinning toy tops and kaleidoscopically morphing chair fragments accompanied by jazz music appear animated by the childlike wonder they brought to every medium they explored.
A selection of Eames chairs is presented on tall shelves, calling to mind Design Within Reach, where their designs can still be purchased. This prompts thoughts about the relationship of cool design to consumerism. As Ms. Armstrong notes in her essay in the excellent catalog, one extension of the cool is the sybaritic materialism promulgated in Playboy magazine, which would come to seem increasingly uncool in succeeding decades.
Perhaps the richest manifestation of the cool was the West Coast jazz played by Gerry Mulligan (who worked with Davis on “Birth of the Cool”), Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, Chet Baker and others. A section of the exhibition is devoted to the noirish photographs of these and other musicians by William Claxton, whose work adorned the covers of many record albums. A gripping catalog essay on Mr. Claxton’s photographs by the critic Dave Hickey taps deep into the soul of the cool.
The cool could not survive the 1960s, when all the repressed energies and conflicts of American society burst to the surface. But in its own time it was more than just a passing style. The cool did not try to change the world; rather, it was an end in itself.
It was a way of being that turned its back on the anxious striving and the inauthentic routines of corporate, middle-class life. To be cool was its own reward, a state of grace. It’s hard to imagine the stars lining up for a rebirth of the cool, but if there is a heaven, I bet it’s a pretty cool place.
“Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury” is at the Addison Gallery of American Art, 180 Main Street, Andover, Mass., (978) 749-4015, addisongallery.org, through April 13.