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Orange County Cool
A striking new multi-disciplinary exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art
examines the emergence of mid-century Modernism and Southern California's "cool" self-image.
By George Melrod
 

From the outside, there is not much to keep the fingers snapping about the Orange County Museum of Art. It has no sweeping vistas or grand urban plaza; entered off a parking lot near the Fashion Island area of Newport Beach it looks more like a pair of large corrugated cartons set down by a gust of Santa Ana wind than a Temple To The Cool. But inside it is a tumult of activity, as curator Elizabeth Armstrong puts the final touches on the sprawling exhibition she's been planning for nearly two and a half years. And this fall, OCMA will play host to the likes of Miles Davis, Pierre Koenig and some of the classiest talents ever to hit the Left Coast.

Entitled "Birth of the Cool," the show is an ambitious multi-disciplinary glimpse at the dynamic community of creative talents that converged around Los Angeles after WW II who in very different ways helped define the heyday of mid-century Modernism in Southern California. Splicing between these varied media, the exhibit traces the emergence of a common attitude of laid-back detachment that we might approvingly label "cool;" specifically, the show draws its title from a seminal Miles Davis album of 1957 that was recorded in 1949-50. Encompassing music, animation/film, architecture, furniture, photography, and graphic design, as well as that old standby painting, the exhibition clearly aims for breadth rather than depth in its chosen scope. And yet, the show is less about the obvious touchstones of the era—though certainly it pays homage to them—than about the web of attitudes and reflections that seemingly connect them. More of a time capsule or a core sample than an academic treatise, the exhibit aspires to capture the zeitgeist of an era—specifically the era in which Southern California came into its own both economically and culturally—by presenting a myriad of angles, mixing freely between fine arts and popular culture. Thus, one could call it a very postmodern look at a quintessentially modern period.

"When we started thinking about this period, this moment, we could see the formal affinities and connections, but we didn't know to what degree these cultural pockets were connected," explains Armstrong. "It's not just a historical show," she adds. "I want it to be that, but we are also interested in how that period had been mediated and stylized, what it's come to represent... We are very much looking back from now, from a contemporary perspective. The distance allows you to see things you might not realize at the time."

Befitting the show's theme of dialogue between different media, many of the featured talents themselves bridged different worlds. Charles and Ray Eames—those paragons of multivalent, sensuous functionality—are represented in several guises: with their furniture, of course, but also by archival material and several short films, including their delightful "Tops" from 1957, which features a jazz score. There is a selection of Julius Shulman's masterful architectural photographs, spanning from his classic images of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House #21, with its dreamy overhang views of the sparkling city grid, to lesser-known modernist gems. There are examples of period animation by Jules Engel and Oskar Fischinger; and a selection of graphic design by such immigrants from Europe (and the East Coast) as Louis Danziger, Herbert Matter, Alvin Lustig and Saul Bass, including classic cover art from Arts & Architecture magazine, whose fabled editor John Entenza conceived the Case Study House program. One large room is devoted to the cultural highlights of a single year at the apex of the postwar Modernist boom: 1959, which brought America the Barbie doll and the Plymouth Fury, sculptures by Noguchi, the Eameses' multi-screen short film "Glimpses of the U.S.A.," and the notorious "Kitchen Debate" between Nixon and Khrushchev (both seen at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow), not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, Alfred Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" and Hugh Hefner's "Playboy's Penthouse" for those hepcats who actually watched TV.

Completing the evocation of a modern Playboy bachelor pad, the exhibit will even feature a "jazz lounge" with a wall of period album covers and a choice selection of swoony photographs of jazz musicians by William Claxton. These images provide a disarmingly casual window into the personalities of the Left Coast jazz scene, from the hunky reticence of Chet Baker, lazing shirtless with a girlfriend at Redondo Beach, to steely focus of Ornette Coleman, gazing up from behind his horn.

With its panoply of sounds, screens, artworks, objects, and images, the show intends to be as entertaining as informative and should prove a revelation to anyone tied to more austere notions of how mid-century Modernism should be perceived. Yet, were these diverse inventions in fact related, or were they merely concurrent? "It wasn't our goal to prove answers," Armstrong says craftily, rather "we wanted to find out. We were curious." Perhaps wisely, the show does not attempt to define 'cool' too closely or to fully equate the hip stoicism of jazz musicians with the sharp geometries of Neutra architecture. "There are vernacular 'cool' aesthetics, the use of the term in every day language, and then there's the classical, the pure, the refined," she offers. Though both, she says, are about "maintaining a particular stance."

At the heart of the show is a selection of paintings by John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and Karl Benjamin—the 'hard-edge' painters in the famous 1959 exhibit at LACMA entitled "Four Abstract Classicists" organized by Jules Langsner and Peter Selz—as well as their peer Helen Lundeberg. Although the LACMA show traveled onto England and Ireland, and was followed in 1964 by a second show in Newport Beach, which included several other like-minded painters, these artists never achieved near the level of recognition (or financial reward) as their East Coast contemporaries.

While West Coast design and architecture were thriving, the fine art scene around L.A. was far more scattered and provincial. Even within their hard-edge constraints, their work varied greatly (Benjamin's jazzy colorbands seem positively giddy next to McLaughlin's spare geometries), and the painters—most of them ensconced in Claremont and Pomona—did not necessarily see themselves as a 'movement.' Adding insult to injury, when the Ferus Gallery burst onto the scene that same time with their stable of Pop Artists, the Abstract Classicists were not invited to the party. So it is apt that they are featured stars of this one and can belatedly share the spotlight with their celebrated design-oriented peers.

In fact, the seed for this show came from pondering these painters. Initially, Armstrong had "talked about doing's show on McLaughlin. Then the Laguna Art Museum did a show." So she "started thinking about the Abstract Classicists. I thought they would still be seen as regional unless I could find some way to contextualize them. So the kernel of the idea was there. I've always liked a multi-disciplinary approach." She began looking at different aspects of the period and asking, "Are they relevant?" First came architecture and design. Then how about music, film? "And that's when we got together a group of advisors, like a roundtable. I've done this for some of my big shows. I think it's a good idea, especially when you go outside your own field."

One of the intriguing subtexts to the show is the issue of how Southern California Modernism—and SoCal 'cool'—differed from the East Coast variety.

"Yes, they are under recognized," Armstrong says of the five painters in the show. "The architecture and design of the period is better known—MOMA acquired the Eames lounge chair—so I'm curious about a further public airing to see how they show up... I think [they'll seem] fresh," she adds enthusiastically, "almost totally a surprise in how contemporary they feel."

In spring 2005, Armstrong and her advisory panel gathered at a Lautner House in the Hollywood Hills. "It's called the Rainbow House, it has this great living room," she gushes. "People got very excited, but they didn't have answers, either." Over the coming months, she continued to meet with her panel members individually and began to flesh out the ideas behind the show. Among the inner circle was curator Elizabeth Smith, who had organized the "Blueprints for Modern Living" show about the Case Study Houses for MOCA in 1989. Another was collector Michael Boyd, an avid student of the period, who maintains an amazing collection of Modernist chairs. Also Populuxe writer Thomas Hine, who "was really helpful in isolating the late '50s as core to this particular examination."

"The hardest decision [was] where to begin with Modernist architecture and design," Armstrong recalls. "Elizabeth Smith helped tremendously in terms of focusing on Shulman." But even once they had honed in on Shulman's photographs, they had to choose from a wealth of riches in selecting examples of great architecture. The challenge throughout was "to find that balance between material that we know and the ones we don't know."

Ultimately, the exhibition had to engage a complex balancing act: to be far-reaching but concise, to acknowledge the icons of the era, but still present fresh images and new scholarship. Given the ambitions of the show and the museum's limited space, not everything could fit. So a weighty 300-page catalogue, including seven essays by the show's advisors and other noted writers, all addressing different aspects of the period, will supplement the exhibition.

One of the intriguing subtexts to the show is the issue of how Southern California Modernism—and SoCal 'cool'—differed from the East Coast variety. Certainly, Los Angeles in the postwar era did not have a monopoly on hipness, or on Modernism: If L.A. had Venice beach bums and Case Study Houses, New York had Greenwich Village beatniks and a growing vista of Midtown skyscrapers. But, Armstrong contends, the NY jazz scene was more 'hot' with 'bebop' as the predominant style. While in visual art, the Abstract Expressionists had wrested the title of Capital of the Art World for New York from Paris with their raw gestural emotions. Then as now, New York was more intense and existential. As Armstrong puts it, "The dominant attitude in NY was still involved in the angst of the war, the angst of the [atomic] bomb," whereas L.A. in the postwar decades felt more like a new suburban boomtown. Citing Michael Boyd, Armstrong says, "he describes this phase [in L.A.] as this nurturing culture; you bring your ideas here and watch them come to fruition." There was, notes Armstrong, a sense of "economic possibility," which in part stemmed from the fact that a lot of veterans were stationed here or ended up here on the GI Bill, when the war was over.

Eames Demetrios, grandson of Charles and Ray Eames, who is now the director of the Eames Office, also talks of a "glorious imperfection and sense of possibility in Southern California at that time," and notes that between entertainment and the aerospace industry the region had at least two growth industries. "California was a place where it was possible for things to happen." He adds that, at least in the Eameses' case, the migration to the West Coast was "self-selected:"

The Eameses came to California specifically because they didn't know anybody; they wanted to work without distractions or constant socializing. At the same time, they became an active part of the design community, supporting people like John Entenza of Arts & Architecture: "They did want to be in touch with people who cared about what they cared about. They were not quite in the arts, but in the arts," he says. "They used a lot of jazz music for their scores. They would go to see paintings; they were interested in the arts, but did not romanticize it."

To Demetrios, the phrase 'cool' may describe the Eameses formal sensibility but does not quite capture their process, which was rooted more in functionality. "'Cool' does imply a certain amount of distance, but Charles and Ray were interested in issues that affected everyday life," he suggests. "They didn't come from a formal place but came to (design] from this very practical, pragmatic place, which allows them both to speak to their era and transcend it."

While "Birth of the Cool" looks back half a century, Armstrong is no stranger to examining a zeitgeist through a collective lens: since her arrival at OCMA in 2001, she has curated several California Biennials, which during her watch have become an increasingly visible venue for emerging California artists to present their work. ("I've done three since I got here; almost half the artists have migrated here from other parts of the country.")

Like those shows, "The Birth of the Cool" seems ultimately less interested in asserting a narrow thesis than reveling in a sense of possibility; it is more excited about proposing connections and discovering synchronicities than hammering home a point. "It's so wonderfully open, it feels so alive," she says of the exhibition. "It's too complicated a show to reduce it."

If ultimately there are multiple varieties of 'cool' set forth in this show, so much the richer. 'The Cool' this show eagerly suggests, is a mutable idea, and its very elusiveness is the playful core of this engaging attempt at mid-century archeology. At the end of our interview, I attempt quixotically to ferret out the exact birth date of the cool, and the date of its demise. Did it start with the end of WW II in 1945, with the first Neutra house in L.A., or the first issue of Arts & Architecture? Did it end in 1963 with the death of Kennedy? Or is it ongoing still? "I really had to leave it fluid," Armstrong explains with a patient smile, like a Zen master to an eager, slightly dim-witted student. "'The Cool' is not really a thing, and there's not really a period."

Orange County Museum web site

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