Contemporary Cultures Clash in Addison’s “Birth of the Cool”

The “Birth of the Cool,” the newest exhibition at the Addison Gallery, includes almost 300 pieces which, unlike many of your parents, are still considered ‘cool’ or ‘modern’ 40 or 50 years after their creation. The art of the post-World War II era was known for its crisp, clean lines, simplicity and sense of optimism. As Alison Kemmerer, the curator for post-1950 art at the Addison, said during the opening, “Cool is something hard to define, but we know it when we see it.” The art in this exhibit is definitely classified as cool. Unlike many period-focused art shows, The “Birth of the Cool,” which opened this past Friday, February 15 and will remain on display until April 13, doesn’t just show the art of an era, but rather the manifestation of art in virtually every aspect of culture. Focusing on the artistic explosion in southern California from the late 40’s to early 60’s, “The Birth of the Cool” includes paintings, photographs, furniture, architecture, music and film. Clothing was the only theme missing, but there was so much to look at and listen to that I barely even noticed the lack of fashion. The curator, Elizabeth Armstrong of the Orange County Museum of Art, wasn’t able to attend the opening, but Kemmerer remarked in the opening speech, “Armstrong was inspired by her interest in the paintings of the era and the relative lack of recognition they receive.” The paintings are formed by simple colors and hard edges, focusing on the interplay of planes. These themes are also apparent in the architecture of the time, as well as the furniture; one could even argue parallels between the paintings and the cool, crisp jazz music that was so prevalent during this time period. Even the name of the show comes from Miles Davis’s jazz album title. The so-called hard-edge painters of this era minimized signs of personal touch in their artwork, emphasizing art as a tool to reveal the viewer, not express the artist. One of Jane Thomas’s ’10 favorite pieces in the show is an untitled painting by John McLaughlin ’19 that consists of two white rectangles, two black rectangles, one gray rectangle, and, in the corner, a bright green rectangle. She said she likes it because “it’s so simple. The viewer can take what they want. For instance, I see it as individualism, a kind of disregard for outside influences. But you might see something completely different.” Kemmerer likes the film “Tops” by Charles and Ray Eames, which is also my personal favorite. Simply tops spinning to jazz music, “Tops” is mesmerizing. From dreidels to Chinese tops, “Tops” relays the cultural meshing that occurs in southern California in an upbeat manner, gleaning views of spinning tops you may never have noticed before. It suggests, but does not force, a larger meaning should you choose to see it as something more. Many other films were playing around the gallery, including episodes of “Road Runner,” created by Chuck Jones. Road Runner is something you might not normally think of as art, but when placed in an art gallery surrounded by creations of its time, it’s easy to see Road Runner as a simple idea that is one of the funniest cartoons ever made. It’s based on a relatively simple premise: a coyote tries to catch and eat a Road Runner. This children’s show can be compared to the simplistic style of the paintings in the very next room. The furniture of the show was also a big hit. Thomas also enjoyed the 3-D shapes of the furniture and the mix of art and practicality. Amy Freedburg, an Education Fellow in the Addison, liked the furniture because of the “relaxed, cool posture it evokes.” One can be imagined resting on the classy, cool white lounge chair in a way that exemplifies the ideas of the time period: not trying too hard to be something you’re not, just simply existing in the essence of cool. Furniture even mixes with video in a film by furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, which used the art of film to accentuate the style, curves and beauty of their creations. Putting these various aspects of culture in an art gallery provokes the viewer to find art in places they might not have otherwise looked. Whatever your interests or passions, whether art, music, architecture, history, design or even cartoons, you can find something that speaks to you in this exhibit. I strongly recommend seeing the show in the next few weeks not only to learn what’s “cool” right now, but to gain a different perspective on modern art.