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Birth of the Cool

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury-opening May 17 at the Oakland Museum of California-looks at the painting, architecture, furniture design, decorative and graphic arts, film, and music that launched mid-century modernism in the United States, and established Los Angeles as a major American cultural center. The exhibition continues through August 17, 2008.

Birth of the Cool was organized by Elizabeth Armstrong, Orange County Museum of Art chief curator and deputy director of public programs.

In keeping with the interdisciplinary nature of the project, Birth of the Cool features a jazz lounge; film, animation, and television clips throughout; an area with Van Keppel Green furniture and architectural pottery; a period art gallery of hard-edge abstract paintings; selections of art, architectural, and documentary photography; and an interactive timeline that highlights examples of California, national, and international culture and history in the 1950s.

Through more than 150 objects, Birth of the Cool examines the dynamic community of architects, designers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians who overlapped and interacted in Southern California at mid-century. An international roster of artists-many of whom made their way to the West Coast from various locations throughout Europe and North America-played a germinal role in the development of this influential and iconic style of high modernism. In the spirit of "cool," inspired by Miles Davis’s album Birth of the Cool, the exhibition explores the affinities among these innovators of art, design, and style working on the West Coast in the postwar era.

"The Birth of the Cool exhibition captures an era in post-war Southern California when eexploration in architecture, art, music and design coalesced to form a modern sensibility based on living well," said Philip Linhares, chief curator of art at the Oakland Museum of California.

"With roots in Bauhaus Germany, and inspired by European immigrant artists and architects and young American designers and avant-garde jazz musicians, the ‘cool’ aesthetic flourished in the LA landscape and climate. Wartime industrial innovations were adapted to peacetime use-steel, glass and concrete houses, and molded plastic and bent plywood furnishings."

Despite a lack of major cultural institutions or patronage at the time, Los Angeles had attracted a number of innovative cultural thinkers. In the late 1930s and 1940s Hollywood provided employment and a safe haven for artists and intellectuals fleeing the war in Europe, who carried with them the tenets of international modernism. Meanwhile, people were migrating to Los Angeles from all over America. Attracted to the favorable climate, optimistic spirit, and relative prosperity of post-war Southern California, a disparate group of painters, filmmakers, designers, and musicians developed new strains of American modernism.

By the 1950s the clean, straight lines of International Style architecture were embodied in the glass and steel houses spreading into the Hollywood Hills, Pacific Palisades, and Palm Springs. The visionary influence of German-born filmmaker Oskar Fischinger could be found even in the conservative studios of Walt Disney, and innovators such as Jules Engel at United Productions of America developed the flat, graphic style of mid-century animation. The smooth, mellow sounds of West Coast jazz musicians were now distinguishable from those of their East Coast counterparts.

Birth of the Cool was inspired in part by the formal parallels between modernist architecture and the West Coast hard-edge paintings of the 1950s. Just as the light-filled modernist house is open to the elements, with walls and ceilings more like planes floating in space than enclosures, hard-edge paintings of the period show an ambiguity between flatness and depth.

The exhibition brings together a stunning group of paintings, including period works by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, John McLaughlin, and Helen Lundeberg. It is a long-overdue reevaluation of a group of dynamic abstract painters, whose work remains vital and current.

The restrained sensibility of these painters offered a distinct alternative to the intensity of East Coast abstract expressionism-in much the same way that California "cool jazz" launched a reaction to the predominant bebop form. Miles Davis, whose 1949-50 recordings for Capitol Records were released in 1957 under the title Birth of the Cool, helped define "cool" for a national and global audience and was an important influence on the West Coast scene in the 1950s. Chet Baker and other outstanding jazz artists of the time-including Dave Brubeck, June Christy, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne, Gerald Mulligan, Art Pepper, and Sonny Rollins-are featured in the exhibition, along with William Claxton’s striking photographic portraits and record covers.

The work of important modernist architects Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, and Craig Ellwood, among others, is examined in the context of their projects for Arts & Architecture’s Case Study House program. Their designs for residential dwellings are among the iconic mid-century architectural gems captured in Julius Shulman’s photographs. Shulman’s images, reproduced extensively in period newspapers and magazines, were purveyors of West Coast cool, offering glimpses inside modern glass houses where carefully staged, elegant middle-class couples act out the suburban American dream of home ownership with Hollywood sophistication. The exhibition includes many of Shulman’s potent images of mid-century modernist architecture, which have played a critical role in the revival of interest in this period.

Considered among the most influential American designers of the 20th century, Charles and Ray Eames exemplify the joining of American ideals of creativity, optimism, and hard work with the rigors of international modernism. After moving to LA in 1941, the couple embarked on four decades of design, working out of their office in Venice. Their molded-plywood furniture designs, plastic chairs, and famous lounge chair embodied a modernist sensibility while being affordable and accessible. Birth of the Cool showcases early and rare examples of Eames furniture, films, and archival materials.

Birth of the Cool is accompanied by a 300-page illustrated book (published with Prestel Publishers, 2007), which provides a thorough reassessment of the era.

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury is organized by the Orange County Museum of Art. The exhibition received significant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Oakland exhibition is generously supported by The Bernard Osher Foundation.

Major support for Birth of the Cool is provided by Brent R. Harris, The Segerstrom Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Significant support is provided by Bente and Gerald Buck, Twyla and Chuck Martin, Jayne and Mark Murrel, Pam and Jim Muzzy, Barbara and Victor Klein, and Victoria and Gilbert E. LeVasseur Jr. Additional support is provided by Toni and Steven Berlinger and Patricia and Max Ellis.