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New National Portrait Gallery Exhibit Explores 'American Coolness'

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Few people are as classically cool as James Dean, shown here in a photograph by Roy Schat.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Schatt
Few people are as classically cool as James Dean, shown here in a photograph by Roy Schat.
A photo of Audrey Hepburn by Philippe Halsman, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

The term "cool" is well-known and widely used, but that wasn't the case 100 years ago. Frank Goodyear is the co-curator of a new exhibit that explores the history of the word and what it means to be cool in 20th century American life. American Cool is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7 and features 100 photographs of the figures who Goodyear and co-curator Joel Dinerstein have deemed the grooviest cats in recent history.

So what does it mean to be cool? Goodyear says, "the idea of cool seems like it's an indefinable term. It's one of these things you know it when you see it. But in fact what we try to do in this exhibition is to define the term in terms of 20th century American history."

Defining and identifying coolness

In order to achieve that goal, he and Dinerstein developed a four-part rubric on which to evaluate the hundreds of individuals who were considered for the exhibit. Goodyear says the four parts are "one, an original, artistic vision carried off with a signature style; two, a cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; three, an iconic power or an instant visual recognition and four, a recognized cultural legacy."

Even though the word "cool" wasn't popularized until midway through the 20th century, the exhibit does touch on "the roots of cool" with figures such as boxer Jack Johnson, surfer Duke Kahanamoki, artist Georgia O'Keefe and writer Zora Neale Hurston. Prominently displayed in a case are photographs of two men who Goodyear says are "the granddaddies of cool": Walt Whitman and Frederick Douglass.

"They first suggest that cultural rebellion could have a transcendent impact on broad American audiences," he says. Goodyear adds that the poses and facial expressions made in some of the photos also speak to a rebellious attitude.

"I love the picture of Walt Whitman, because here he is with his hands on his hip, his hat sort of rakishly pulled to the side, hips slightly thrust forward," Goodyear says. "He's the antithesis of what the literary giants of his age were about. He is suggesting that he is not going to be part of the establishment. He is not going to be one of those clubmen who sit in big leather chairs and read pretentious Victorian verse."

The exhibit continues one room over with a series of portraits that fall into the "Birth of the Cool" category, which covers figures from the 1940's and 1950's. One of those images is a musician who Goodyear says is credited with first spreading the word around.

"It was the legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young who disseminated the word and concept of cool into jazz culture in the early 1940's and in this particular gallery we have collected a number of those figures from the 1940's who first popularized the term."

Goodyear says in its original usage, "cool" was used to suggest a sense of approval or understanding.

Musician Miles Davis by by Aram Avakian, courtesy of the Aram Avakian Collection.

"It also suggests a certain relaxed intensity that you remain stoic in a very kind of stylish and indifferent manner," he says. "Cool also though really can serve as a kind of self-defense mechanism to keep at arm's length the mainstream or challenges that one is confronting in their life, and for African-Americans who were striving for excellence and autonomy as musicians in the 1940's, cool became a way to kind of keep racism at arm's length."

The evolution of cool

He says the word was later discovered and repurposed by the literary and film world. "It comes to mean a figure who has this kind of transgressive posture towards the industry of which he or she is a part, and so as we think about film, it's about the urge to play different kinds of characters, characters that perhaps are more in touch with some of the sort of underlying anxieties associated with adolescent culture, for instance."

The "Birth of the Cool" gallery features a number of jazz musicians, including Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. But it also includes other figures from the same time period, such as actors John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Gary Cooper and writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and James Baldwin. Visitors will also see a gelatin silver print by Roger Marshutz of Elvis Presley performing for his fans and an image taken by Arnold Newman of a moody-looking Jackson Pollock at his Long Island studio.

"He is sort of saying, well, yes, I know you're there, but I'm not sure I altogether care," Goodyear says, "that my concerns are with my art."

That rebel sensibility continues across the hallway, in a room dedicated to the 1960's and 1970's: "Cool and the Counterculture." "During this period, to be cool was to be anti-authoritarian, to be open to new ideas from young, cultural leaders in rock n' roll, journalism, film, and African-American culture," Goodyear says. "Cool was a badge of opposition to the system."

He points to a 1965 image by Richard Avedon of singer and musician Bob Dylan, who Goodyear says is "perhaps the most iconic kind of cool figure of the sixties." The photo was snapped the year Dylan went electric, which Goodyear says greatly upset his folksy peers.

There are also political figures such as Malcolm X and Angela Davis, though notably, there are no images of actual politicians. "We had a long conversation about whether there were Presidents such as Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, even Obama, whether they merited inclusion, and ultimately reached the conclusion that to be President was in a sense to be the establishment."

Modern questions of cool

The exhibit also includes modern-day celebrities and influential figures from the late 20th century.

"There are some who have written that cool died in the 1980's in Reagan's America," Goodyear says. "It had become commodified and everything that was cool somehow was lost in this increasingly materialistic culture. But I think as you stand here and look at some of the individuals who are represented, from Madonna and Jay-Z to Prince, to figures like Michael Jordon, Johnny Depp, Jon Stewart, these are some of the exemplars of cool in the recent past."

While Jon Stewart might not be the most obvious representative of "coolness", Goodyear says there's a solid rationale behind including the political satirist.

"At the heart of cool is some type of rebellion and I think with Stewart there is a rebellion against the way that news is being told," he says. "News is in some sense an obsolete genre, and what Stewart has done is in a sense reinvented it, deeply satirical, but with a great sort of seriousness of purpose. He's made watching the news not only popular, but relevant again."

Goodyear says this particular show is full of individuals who mean something to Americans, and the fact that it's limited to 100 people means that, invariably, there will be individuals who are left out. So while you will see portraits of Hunter S. Thompson, Jimi Hendrix and Tony Hawk, you won't see Martin Luther King, Jr., Janis Joplin or Gloria Steinem.

As for those individuals who just missed the mark, Goodyear says visitors can check out the exhibit's "alt-100" slideshow, which features the folks who are pretty cool, but not quite cool enough for the top of the list.

[Music: "Cold Sweat (Instrumental)" by James Brown from Ain't It Funky / "Vivaldi's Winter Concerto In F Minor" by The Baronics from Get Bach! ]

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