Birth of Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury

At the Addison Gallery of American Art until April 13, 2008

Where have I been? I only discovered the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. a couple of weeks ago. According to their website, it was established in 1931 as an “academic museum dedicated to collecting American Art.” It boasts a collection of 16,000 works, including 6000 photographs, some by Walker Evans. Apparently he was an Andover alum. Who knew? Not me.

It was the “Birth of Cool” exhibit that brought me to the museum for the first time. The exhibit title was borrowed from a 1957 Miles Davis jazz album by the same name. The featured work spans many media: painting, music, animation, architecture, photography, and furniture. The introductory signage announces, “This exhibition takes a retrospective look at the distinctive fusion of high modernism and a ‘cool’ aesthetic that were a defining aspect of Southern California culture in the 1950’s.” It’s a fun idea for a show, exhibiting a variety of artifacts ranging from the first Barbie, to abstract “Hard-edge” paintings, to Charles and Ray Eames molded plywood chairs.

I found paintings by Helen Lundeberg of Pasadena appealing. They’re abstractions composed of geometric planes of muted colors that imply space without actually depicting it. The blues, grays, and beiges work together to suggest horizon, volume, transparency. They must have tapped into my taste for all things architectural.

A room dedicated to a snapshot of 1959 is full of milestones. It celebrates Buddy Holly, who died that year, and Frank L. Wright, who also died then -- the year that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that he designed opened. It reminds us that 1959 was the year that the British Motor Corporation introduced the Mini, that Ray Charles’ album “What’d I Say” was released, and that Mattel created Barbie.

It’s the photography, though, that really intrigued me. There’s a great series of black and white photographs by William Claxton depicting the local California jazz scene. The large images invite you into the informal jam sessions. One of Dinah Washington performing is especially striking.

Another series of photos by architectural photographer Julius Shulman are particularly compelling. His photos, some in color and some black and white, of Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 and Case Study House #22 capture mid-century Modernism in all its glory. The houses are steel and glass, pristine icons of the style. Having such photos in a museum is a welcome reminder that what is often referred to as “modern” today is really only a stylistic throwback to 1950’s Modern. (I suppose it’s also a reminder that those of us who are not Modernists are so not cool.) Schulman includes people in his photos, which make the images historically that much more interesting. The fashions and attitudes of the model inhabitants are priceless.

If you don’t get a chance to check out the show, or even if you do, you might be interested in the book created to accompany the exhibit, Birth of Cool. It’s on my wish list.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast