James Dean is leaning back, drawing on a cigarette, looking away from the camera as a mirror behind him in the black and white photograph creates a shadow image of a good-looking young man who, even in a quiet moment, seems remote, resistant to what’s expected of him.
But who else is? What does it take? And what is it about America that’s defined cool to the world?
The National Portrait Gallery has decided it knows, and on Friday it opened a unique exhibit, “American Cool,” with 100 photographs of American men and women who define “cool.”
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“ ‘American Cool’ is about America’s greatest cultural export – cool – and who embodies it,” Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said at the media preview for the exhibit.
Certainly Dean, during his brief life, created a new American icon – the rebellious teen – in the stifling, strict atmosphere of the 1950s. He defined himself in the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” his most celebrated role, before dying in 1955 at age 24 in a crash while driving his Porsche.
And being cool, according to this exhibit, is very much tied to being a rebel.
Most of the personalities photographed here are in the arts: actors Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Audrey Hepburn; jazz musicians Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker; singers Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Chrissie Hynde; painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.
A few sports figures make the grade, such as boxer Muhammad Ali and basketball legend Michael Jordan.
But there are no elected politicians or anyone from the business world beyond Apple’s co-founder the late Steve Jobs.
The show’s curators, Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear III, who described themselves in an interview as cultural historians, are quick to say they aren’t making subjective judgments. They aren’t deciding who’s in with the in crowd.
They’ve laid out four criteria to be cool, and each of the 100 photos picked for the show had to have at least three of the elements:
“An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; the embodiment of cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; iconic power, or instant visual recognition; and a recognized cultural legacy.”
“They are the successful rebels of American culture,” said Goodyear, who added that the criteria came down to being “edgy, dark, mysterious.” They were also successful at what they did, not necessarily in making a lot of money but in excelling at singing, writing, painting, performing.
Goodyear, a former curator of photographs at the gallery, is now a co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine.
“Cool is an American concept,” said Dinerstein, a professor at Tulane University who teaches a class called “The History of Being Cool in America.” “It comes out of our culture, being middle class and creating a new persona. It is a singular American self-identification.”
The curators first met in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin and are so engaged in the subject of cool that they finish each other’s sentences.
They’ve even pinpointed the birth of cool: The father of cool was Lester Young, the Mississippi-born jazz tenor saxophonist who honed his craft in Kansas City. He was the soloist for the Count Basie Orchestra and created a new smooth sound, often accompanying blues singer Billie Holiday, who’s also on the cool list.
“Cool was a 1940s jazz slang term,” Dinerstein said. “Cool was born in New York City and became a national sensation and a global obsession.”
Young would say “I’m cool” – launching the use of the term – and wear a porkpie hat and sunglasses in the darkened clubs, creating a style standard for musicians for generations.
“He created an aesthetic of detachment in music, style and public deportment,” Dinerstein said.
The exhibit divides the history of cool into four periods: “The Roots of Cool,” before 1940; “The Birth of Cool,” 1940-1959; “Cool and Counterculture,” 1960-1979; and “The Legacy of Cool,” 1980 to the present.
There are also grandfathers of cool, going all the way back to the 19th century with poet Walt Whitman, who celebrated rugged individualism; and Frederick Douglass, the author, abolitionist and newspaper publisher who escaped slavery and came to symbolize the dignity of African-Americans.
The pictures in the exhibit are striking, taken by some of the world’s most noted photographers, including Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz and Herman Leonard. The majority are from the gallery’s permanent collection.
The museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, is not on the National Mall but in downtown Washington in what was once the Patent Office Building.
The exhibit includes kiosks that enable visitors to play short music and video clips of the people featured. The gallery also has the music of 10 of the artists playing throughout the exhibition space.
Quite a few of the photographs contain a dated element that’s no longer considered cool: smoking. Before the public health outcry over the effects of smoking, cigarettes were an almost essential prop to be cool.
So there is, to some degree, a changing aesthetic of cool.
But the exhibit is putting a frame around what had seemed indefinable: the incredible appeal of everyone from a rugged Clint Eastwood to a porcelain-like yet steely Faye Dunaway.