Monday, November 17, 2008

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

by Jeff Farris

"Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury"
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis, MO
September 19, 2008-January 5, 2009

"Birth of the Cool" is a broad retrospective of mid-century California culture ­ art, architecture, design, music, and pop culture ­ named after Miles Davis’ 1949-1950 jazz-music compilation. Using elements of interior design, paintings, architectural photographs, and the audio-visual media of contemporary pop culture, this exhibition immerses the viewer in the artistic and cultural milieu of mid-20th century California. Although it might have been easier to separate the disparate parts of “cool” culture and display each aspect of the show in its own gallery, the curator has wisely chosen to intersperse the diverse elements of the show throughout the exhibition and thus envelope the observer in a complete sensory experience.

Karl Benjamin, Black Pillars, 1957, oil on canvas, private collection. © Karl Benjamin, courtesy Louis Stern Fine Art, West Hollywood.

Hard-edge paintings by noted California artists serve as anchors for the show and set the tone with their straight lines and bold geometry. The curators have selected works by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Helen Lundenberg, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin. The show devotes one gallery almost exclusively to outsized, vibrant works by Lorser Feitelson and equally large, but subdued pieces from Helen Lundenberg. Of special note are two works by Karl Benjamin, Black Pillars, 1957, and Small Planes: White, Blue and Pink, 1957. These works illustrate the clean lines embodied by the architecture and interior design of the period and illustrate how straightforward form can have an outsized impact.

Charles and Ray Eames, LCM Chair, © 1951. Manufactured by Herman Miller Furniture Company; molded birch plywood, chrome-plated steel, rubber. Boyd Collection.

The creations of Charles and Ray Eames dominate the retrospective with furnishings and two video presentations, Kaleidoscope Jazz Chair, 1960, and Tops, 1957. Both of the Eames’ film loops present spinning visions of light infused with the cool jazz sound of the era. While neither film has a storyline, both films, according to Charles Eames, “get an idea across.” A wide-ranging selection of the Eames’ furniture is shown, including an extensive collection of chairs, early cabinetry, and the California-inspired “Surf Board” coffee table. Eames’ iconic chairs are displayed on an imposing three-level platform giving the viewer the opportunity to view the pieces from all angles.

Julius Shulman, photograph of Case Study House #22 (Pierre Koenig, Los Angeles, 1959-60), 1960. © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute.

Complementing the clean-line aesthetic of the hard-edge paintings are Julius Shulman’s photographs of the Case Study Houses. Shulman highlights the angular form of the homes while showcasing the furnishings and fashions of their inhabitants. Special attention is given to architect Pierre Koenig’s Case Study Houses #21 and #22, with wide-angle interior shots and expansive views of the houses’ exteriors. Shulman captures the openness of the interior spaces and their connectedness to the outside world by focusing his camera’s attention onto Koenig’s extensive use of floor-to-ceiling windows. A hallmark of Shulman’s work is to feature people and furnishings, thus making the pictures more visually interesting. These photographs serve to include the related, mid-century architecture in the exhibits as well as showing the context in which the other elements of "Birth of the Cool" were displayed during the era.


"Birth of the Cool" was conceived by the Orange County Museum of Art under the curatorial direction of Elizabeth Armstrong and is on view in St. Louis at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum from September 19, 2008 to January 5, 2009. The Kemper is located on the campus of Washington University at Skinker & Forsyth Boulevards, St. Louis, MO 63130. 314/935-4523. Museum hours are 11-6 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday; Friday 11-8; closed Tuesday.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well written!!! Makes me want to see this exhibit. I would like to hear more from this author.