birth of the cool

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[The following is an excerpt from the catalogue for the exhibition “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture At Midcentury” organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, on view from October 7, 2007 through January 6, 2008, which will travel across the United States.]

When people are asked about Southern California, they comment on its favorable climate and laid-back attitude, its propensity for fantasy indulgences, its profound attachment to cars, its hillsides covered with suburban tract houses, its sunny beaches, and its blondes. So the notion that Southern California was a receptive and nurturing host to modernist innovation in America-and the place where modernist forms, ideals, and expressions achieved their full potential-might seem counterintuitive. Yet California is famously misunderstood. It is also known, for instance, as a place that attracts novelty and innovation, for creative endeavors largely unencumbered by tradition. The particular cultural climate that enabled the full flowering of modernism in America is the focus of Birth of the Cool, which explores the legacy of modernist forms of art, architecture, film, design, and music as they evolved and peaked in Southern California in the 1950s. The tremendous resurgence of interest in this period and style today in the culture at large is also at the core of this study, which takes a retrospective look at the distinctive fusion of high modernism and an aesthetic of cool that we now project onto this progressive time and place.

The relative youth of cultural history in Southern California has provided a clean slate for the projection of mythical and contradictory visions. The phrase “sunshine and noir,” first employed to describe the paradoxical ability of Los Angeles to be at once utopian and dystopian, encapsulates one of the most common stereotypes about this place. With its promise of economic and social opportunities, Southern California has attracted a steady stream of immigrants, whose “spirit of optimism” is one of the region’s most functional clichés. In the postwar moment, when many Americans were still experiencing the residual fears of World War II and the specter of the atomic bomb (it was during this period that the angst-ridden language of New York school abstract expressionism emerged), a more utopian vision persisted in Southern California. Between 1949 and 1965 the population of this “frontier of so-called civilization” more than doubled, providing a newfound status and independence.

The term cool, as used in the title of this book and of the exhibition that it accompanies, refers to the broad cultural zeitgeist that pervades midcentury modern art, architecture, film, design, music, and popular culture. The essays in this book explore multiple aspects of “cool.” There are the rationality and purity that are hallmarks of modernist design-a cool, some would say cold, aesthetic with hard edges, minimal forms, and an industrial sensibility. And there is the cool of the hipster- embodied by the mellow, laid-back sound of West Coast jazz, for instance-an attitude that eludes those who try too hard to achieve it, as Thomas Hine notes in his essay in this volume.

While Venice Beach and, by extension, California may have laid claim to the mythic space of “cool” in the popular consciousness, it was hardly known as a cultural center, and Los Angeles was considered to be an intellectual desert. Yet, despite the void of major cultural institutions or patronage, Southern California at midcentury had attracted a number of innovative and original cultural thinkers, along with a burgeoning creative class. In the late 1930s and 1940s Hollywood and area universities provided employment and a safe haven for many fleeing the Nazis and the threat of war in Europe. Artists and intellectuals such as Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Oskar Fischinger, Aldous Huxley, Thomas Mann, Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Billy Wilder all made their way to Los Angeles during these years.

Though not known for being particularly hip or cool, (Charles and Ray) Eames-working from a small studio in Venice, Calif.-altered the world of design and, in their idiosyncratic way, created designs that have become touchstones of midcentury modern cool. As Lorraine Wild notes in her essay in this volume, these “radicals in disguise” were “most complicated modernists.” Just as their visionary ideas found their way into virtually every area of design-from architecture and industrial design to toys, films, books, and exhibitions-their influential work is featured in virtually every essay in this book, often in a leading role. Charles Eames was born in the Midwest into a respectable middle-class family but was kicked out of Washington University in Saint Louis-purportedly for views that were “too modern.” Ray Kaiser, who was to become Charles’s well-known collaborator and second wife, grew up in California but moved to New York in her teens. After college, she studied painting at the Art Students League with the highly respected and influential German émigré painter Hans Hofmann and became a founding member of the American Association of Artists (AAA), which promoted abstract art. Charles and Ray met in the late 1930s in Michigan at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, an incubator for modernist architecture and design, and moved to California in 1941. Arguably the most influential modernist designers of the 1940s and 1950s, the Eameses produced works that embodied the principles of modernism in design and were also accessible and affordable, reflecting the ideal of informal domesticity.

In the 1950s their innovative furniture designs, spawned in California, could be found in department stores and magazine advertisements nationwide. The Eameses’ experimental but highly functional designs were embraced during their lifetime, and their ideas continue to inspire and attract new generations of hipsters and mainstream consumers alike. This degree of popularity often results in oversaturation and a loss of interest, but their designs have never gone out of style, and in recent years, as midcentury modernism has taken on renewed cachet, they are back in full force. In essence, the Eameses are the proverbial “glue” of midcentury modernism, providing the link between the intellectual and formal elements of modernism and its crossover into popular and corporate culture.

In Los Angeles the Eameses connected with another quintessential California modernist, architect Richard Neutra. (In fact, when the couple first moved to Los Angeles, they rented an apartment in a Neutra-designed building on Strathmore Drive in Westwood.) Born in 1892 in Vienna, Neutra studied under Adolf Loos and was influenced as well by Otto Wagner, two of the preeminent pioneers of modernist architecture. In 1923 Neutra moved to the United States and worked briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin but was soon drawn to the West Coast to work with his friend and fellow architect Rudolph M. Schindler. Neutra’s unique incorporation of technology, aesthetics, and nature into his modernist buildings led the visionary editor of Arts and Architecture (1938-67), John Entenza, to invite him to serve on the magazine’s board, “a veritable who’s who of Los Angeles’ mid-century avant-garde.” Entenza’s most lasting contribution was probably his sponsorship of the Case Study House program, which included experimental designs by Eames and Neutra, as well as by Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig, to name just a few of the participating architects.

Also on the masthead of Arts and Architecture was photographer Julius Shulman. In 1926, as an eleventh-grade student at Roosevelt High School in Los Angeles
, Shulman was enrolled in a high school class in photography, and was rarely without his Vest Pocket Kodak. Ten years later, he was taken to see the Kun House, which had just been completed in 1936 by the up-and-coming Neutra. The prints Shulman made of that house so impressed the architect that he asked him to photograph more of his designs, jump-starting an extraordinarily long and brilliant career. Shulman’s potent images of mid-century modernist architecture have been one of the most critical factors in the revival of interest in this period.

Shulman gave a currency to his architectural subjects and, above all, a sense of the “new.” One of his most iconic photographs is of Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., completed in 1946 and photographed by Shulman in the same year. His image of Mrs. Kaufmann lounging poolside, the sun setting behind the house and silhouetting the mountains in the background, would become one of the most reproduced architectural photographs ever, and it helped assure the house a place in history. Over the years, however, the Kaufmann house suffered damage and neglect and was almost lost altogether. After languishing on the real estate market for several years, it was purchased in the late 1980s by a young couple, who hired the Los Angeles architectural firm of Marmol and Radziner. With the assistance of Shulman’s photographs, the architects completed an exquisite restoration of the house in the 1990s, which helped to spur renewed interest in modernist heritage and mid-century modern design. “The Kaufmann house appeared to have been made flesh again with almost perfect historical accuracy,” Sylvia Lavin recently wrote in a revisionist assessment of Neutra, “and is presented as fresh today as the day it was designed-fresher, even.”

Shulman’s architectural photographs capture the essence of “cool.” In what is probably his most famous picture, two stylishly dressed women are sitting in a glass-walled house, designed by the architect Pierre Koenig, cantilevered over the lights of Los Angeles. In the eyes of architecture critic Paul Goldberger, this image “is to mid-century modernism what Monet’s paintings are to Gothic cathedrals.”

Shulman clearly understood modernist architecture’s relationship with fashion, interior design, and consumer culture. Like David Hockney’s paintings from the 1960s, such as A Bigger Splash (1967), Shulman’s photographs of midcentury modernist houses have the élan of Hollywood movies, and their cinematic framing, minimal decor, and fashionable inhabitants are in keeping with the ultimate objectification of the house itself. Indeed, these houses function like film sets, often framing spectacular backdrops-glorious palm trees, cool pools, the Pacific Ocean, desert expanses, and city lights.

This examination of midcentury modernist art, design, and culture was inspired in part by the formal parallels between the architecture of the period and the West Coast hard-edge paintings of the 1950s. In her landmark book Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses, Elizabeth Smith noted that these paintings “bear a marked affinity to the elegant, reductive, supremely technological pavilionlike homes of Craig Ellwood and Pierre Koenig of the late 1950s.” Just as the light-filled modernist house is open to the elements, with walls and ceilings seeming more like planes floating in space than enclosures, hard-edge paintings of the period are characterized by a play between opaque and transparent forms, an instability of spatial division, an ambiguity between flatness and depth. In Helen Lundeberg’s enigmatic paintings of the period, for example, such as A Quiet Place (1950) and Sloping Horizon (1960), interior and exterior spaces become almost indistinguishable.

While Lundeberg herself never completely gave up all allusion to the literal world in her work, the hard-edge paintings of her husband, Lorser Feitelson, and the three other West Coast artists who were known as the abstract classicists (a term that distinguished them from the abstract expressionists)-Karl Benjamin, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin-worked in a completely abstract idiom. The works of these California painters are at once elegant and syncopated, with their distinctive vocabulary of rhythmic, flat forms and pulsating, pure hues linked by geometry and faceted planes. Born in 1898, Feitelson attended the New York Armory Show, the 1913 exhibition of cubist and postimpressionist art that put modernism on the map in America. After deciding that the best way to understand modern art was to go to Europe, he spent time in Paris between 1919 and 1927, exhibiting there and in the United States, and by the time he moved to Los Angeles in 1927, his reputation as a pioneer American modernist was in place. During the 1930s he worked with Stanton Macdonald-Wright, the cofounder of the cubist-expressionist painting movement synchromism, whose own work had been exhibited in the Armory Show.

By the 1940s Feitelson had moved away from figuration toward biomorphic and hard-edge abstraction, a style that he continued to refine throughout his career. When the abstract classicists were first brought together in 1959 in an exhibition organized by the influential California art writer and critic Jules Langsner for the Los Angeles County Museum, the art press described their paintings as easygoing, Bauhaus, and Zen. In much the same way that “cool jazz” launched a reaction to the predominant bebop form, the more restrained-and more classically modernist-tone of the hard-edge painters offered a distinct alternative to the gestural and emotive fervency of abstract expressionism. Like the modernist architects, these painters sought a reductive purification of form. “The rational element in classical art runs counter to a widespread contemporary belief in the primary value of emotion and intuition in esthetic experience,” Langsner wrote in the catalog for Four Abstract Classicists. “It is true the classicist is not preoccupied with art as an opportunity to make autobiographical statements. He is not a narcissist in paint.”

In John McLaughlin’s desire to purge the self from art, he eliminated from his paintings most traces of the human hand and all references to the outside world. In this, he was deeply influenced by a Japanese esthetic in which large intervals between objects, the “marvelous void” of the Zen masters, is often of much greater significance than the objects themselves. McLaughlin was extremely knowledgeable about Japanese art and design, having lived in Japan during different periods of his adult life. In an essay on the artist, art historian Peter Selz compared McLaughlin’s work with the simple aristocratic houses of Japan’s early Edo period, buildings of perfect proportion and subtle harmony. Throughout his career McLaughlin supported himself as a dealer of Japanese prints, and he didn’t fully embrace painting until he moved to California in 1946, when he was already in his 40s. With his wife, Florence, he lived a seemingly conventional bourgeois life, settling in Dana Point, a beach town some 50 miles south of Los Angeles, where he continued to deal in Japanese prints, play golf, and paint harmoniously proportioned, quietly understated, radiant abstractions. Living and working on the periphery of the art world throughout his career, McLaughlin nonetheless has long been revered as an artist’s artist and a collector’s best-kept secret. As Susan Larsen has written, “Having a McLaughlin painting in one’s environment is held akin to the early twentieth century pioneers’ great need to have and study the work of Paul Cézanne.”

While McLaughlin’s self-restraint found its source in Eastern art and spirituality, the minimal, geometric forms in the work of th
e other abstract classicists were a more logical outgrowth of cubism, De Stijl painting, and Bauhausian aesthetics transformed by postwar Pacific modernism. California hard-edge painting, according to Peter Plagens, one of the central chroniclers of West Coast modern art, “arose out of Los Angeles’ desert air, youthful cleanliness, spatial expanse, architectural tradition (of almost nothing previous to Gill, Neutra, Schindler and Ellwood), and, most vaguely and most importantly, out of optimism.” After World War II, Karl Benjamin, like so many veterans, moved to California, where he finished college, majoring in English literature, history, and philosophy. Supporting his young family as a schoolteacher, he began painting in the early 1950s. Largely self-taught, he looked at modern art wherever he could find it-in books, magazines, and the handful of avant-garde galleries in Los Angeles, such as those of Felix Landau and Frank Perls. An intuitive painter, he gravitated to the geometric imagery of Russian constructivism and to Bauhausian experiments in pattern and form, which he enlivened with idiosyncratic color combinations and serrated forms. With their vibrating, interlocking, asymmetrical bands of color, his bold abstract paintings were immediately well received by critics, curators, and collectors.

In 1952 Benjamin moved to Claremont, California, a college town east of Los Angeles with an active art scene. When he built his house there in 1955, he hired a young modernist architect out of the University of Southern California named Fred McDowell, who designed a classic post-and-beam modernist ranch in which Benjamin still lives and works today. In the 1980s and 1990s Benjamin taught art at the Claremont Graduate School, where he influenced a generation of California artists, and today he is again receiving the kind of positive notice that his work first elicited at midcentury.

Frederick Hammersley, who lived in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles during the 1950s and early 1960s, got to know Benjamin while he was teaching art at Pomona College from 1953 to 1962. Hammersley had studied at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles in the early 1940s and at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris immediately after the war. But upon his return to California, he set aside his traditional training when he “bumped into hunch painting by accident, by seeing the shape.” The hunch technique was largely an intuitive process. “It seems to be a process of responding or reacting to a particular canvas,” he stated in 1959 in the Four Abstract Classicists catalog. “At first I would paint a shape that I would ‘see’ there… The next shape would come from the feeling of the first plus the canvas.” Hammersley’s description of laying down the colors and shapes in his paintings could just as easily be a jazz artist’s description of a musical jam session, in which one musician lays down a note or plays a riff and another responds to it. “It just feels right… See, this is where faith comes in. I was so astonished. I didn’t have to justify anything. I just listened to the body, listened to me, or the feeling.”

With its overlapping of harmonies and rhythms, jazz takes its place as a quintessentially modernist form of music, and its particular fusion of African origins and contemporary sound make it quintessentially American. One of the standout jazz artists at midcentury was Miles Davis, whose Birth of the Cool, first recorded in 1949-50, featured his plaintive but compelling horn and a sophisticated arrangement by Gil Evans. This track helped define “cool” for a national and global audience and was a particularly important influence on the style that dominated the West Coast scene in the 1950s. While arguing for the diversity of West Coast jazz, Ted Gioia, in his landmark book on the topic, defines the West Coast sound in terms that could also be applied to the hard-edge painting of the period: “By and large it had a strong compositional emphasis; it delighted in counterpoint; it had a cooler demeanor than Bird and Dizzy’s bebop… The West Coast sound was cleanly articulated, the execution fluid and polished.” The cool, airy vocals and movie-star good looks of the innovative jazz trumpeter Chet Baker epitomize West Coast cool at midcentury. In his essay in this volume, Dave Hickey writes about how William Claxton’s photographs of Baker and other artists-including Dave Brubeck, Shelly Manne, Gerry Mulligan, and Sonny Rollins-captured the laid-back style and attitude of the West Coast jazz scene.

One of jazz’s most influential proponents during this period was Hugh Hefner, the founder (in 1953) and publisher of Playboy magazine. In 1959 Hefner starred in a new TV show called Playboy’s Penthouse, in which he set the stage for the lifestyle of the urbane sophisticate. Amid swirls of cigarette smoke, booze, and canoodling, elegantly clad guests partied with their 33-year-old neophyte TV host in a modernist bachelor’s pad.

The ethos of cool-a cerebral mix of seeming detachment and effortlessness-has had a long run as cultural trends go in America. While the outward trappings and styles of the 1960s were dramatically different from those of the previous decade, the cool managed to survive the transition even as the social revolution of the 1960s swept aside earlier artistic innovations. In California the beat poets and Ferus Gallery artists-many of whom were referred to as the “cool school”-dominated the scene and subsequent rewritings of history. Likewise, in music the fevered rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll eclipsed the aesthetic of cool jazz. And the pure, clean lines of modernist architecture and hard-edge painting and design gave way to a variety of postmodern styles.

Today, however, modernism and an aesthetic of cool have once again been merged, taking on an out-of-the-box cachet that has become shorthand for beauty, sophistication, and aspiration. Midcentury modernist architecture and design have been appropriated as backdrops for and symbols of confident urbanity, starring in Hollywood films and fashion shoots and used by high-end advertisers and mass commercial outlets to sell everything from luxury cars, credit cards, and investment services to vodka, sneakers, and blue jeans.

Hard-edge paintings such as John McLaughlin’s cool, Zen-like abstract canvases of the 1950s, once collectors’ best-kept secrets, have been rediscovered and are now in great demand. An iconic chair by Charles and Ray Eames, “La Chaise” (1948), which existed only as a prototype in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is now widely available thanks to its commercial production by Vitra starting in 1990. The renovation of Neutra’s Kaufmann House spurred a modernist revival in Palm Springs, where masterpieces by internationally known architects such as Albert Frey, along with anonymous tract homes, have now been lovingly restored, helping to rekindle this city’s pride in its modernist heritage. And just this past year, Koenig’s Case Study House #21 was sold at auction as an art icon.

Today the modernist styles that flourished in Southern California at midcentury embody an ideal of sophistication and formal purity, one that has an enduring allure but that we may not be prepared to embrace fully. The word cool, after all, is double-edged, with connotations of emotional distance. Critic Terrence Rafferty recently wrote of Chet Baker, “Even in his prime his cool was so extreme that he often looked oddly spectral, like someone trapped in a block of ice,” and he describes Baker’s continued devotion to cool jazz at a time when contemporaries such as Miles Davis had moved on to explore new styles as a “serious failure of imagination.” Davis, who never lost his aura of cool, can perhaps be seen as a model for the contemporary artists a
nd designers who are freely sampling and remixing elements of mid-century modernism, creating new forms and giving currency to a rebirth of the cool.

©2007 Orange County Museum of Art/Prestel Verlag, Munich, Berlin, London, New York

Photograph by Bob Willoughby of Miles Davis backstage at the “Just Jazz” concert, Shrine Auditorium, Hollywood, 1950. © Bob Willoughby.