Arts Listings

‘Birth of the Cool’ at Oakland Museum

By Peter Selz Special to the Planet
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 10:11:00 AM
Frederick Hammersley, Up Within, 1957–58, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in.
Frederick Hammersley, Up Within, 1957–58, oil on linen, 48 x 36 in.
Julius Shulman, photograph of Case Study House #21 (Pierre Koenig, architect, Los Angeles, 1958), 1958.
Julius Shulman, photograph of Case Study House #21 (Pierre Koenig, architect, Los Angeles, 1958), 1958.

Marshal McLuhan in his seminal book, Understanding Media (1967), differentiated between “hot” and “cool” media, the former requiring the viewer’s emotional involvement, while the latter is more abstract and detached.  

The leading art movements in the Bay Area—Abstract Expressionism, followed by Bay Area Figuration—were certainly “hot” by McLuhan’s definition. In the same period “Cool Jazz” was introduced in Los Angeles, where Miles Davis recorded his Birth of the Cool, which accounts for the title of this show which includes the sharp photographs of jazz musicians and album covers of Davis, Ray Charles, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Their music is piped into the exhibition. 

The show stresses the visual arts, painting, architecture, furniture, design and photography. Its originator, Elizabeth Armstrong, writes about the the “rationality and purity of modernist design ... a cool aesthetic with hard edges, minimal forms and industrial sensibility.” 

It was the functional chair by Charles and Ray Eames, with its clean curves fabricated industrially in molded plywood, mass-produced inexpensively, that became the icon of the style. Eames had travelled to Europe, became familiar with the architecture of Le Corbusier, Gropius and the Bauhaus and practiced architecture before deisgning the chair.  

Birth of the Cool displays the sharp focus photographs by Julius Shulman, who took black and white pictures of Richard Neutra’s modernist houses and their fashionable inhabitants—the essence of Cool. 

The core of the show are the paintings which were originally called “Abstract Classicist” (by me) when they first showed as a group in 1959, and became better known as “Hard Edge” painters. Unlike their European predecessors in geometric abstraction, such as Malevich or Mondrian, the Los Angeles artists working after World War II no longer contained utopian aspirations. Their work is clear, at times delicate and graceful, at times austere and stark.  

Unlike the spontaneity characteristic of Abstract Expressionism, it is carefully planned, although Fred Hammersley says that he follows his hunches. In the Oakland exhibition we see his beautifully balanced color fields, John McLaughlin’s silent canvases influenced by his long study of Zen, Lorser Feitelson’s careful compositions of forms in space, Helen Lundeberg’s enigmatic paintings suggesting architectural spaces and Karl Benjamin’s jazzy color bands. 

Frequently exhibitions are best displayed by their curators in their venues of origin. This is certainly true in this case. The show looked right in the Orange County Museum, where it had the requisite space. In Oakland, the works are crowded and mixed together. More space could have been available, but the museum decided to add another exhibition, Cool Remixed, which is loud rather then cool. There are graffitis, skateboards, pictures scribbled on car hoods, all made by very young individuals—whereas the artists of the 1950s were mature, experienced, sophisticated. It was a pleasure to see so many young visitors in this show, but the pairing of the two exhibitions is unfortunate.  

The Birth of the Cool, however, gives the viewer insight into a specific California aesthetic, which had a strong belief that architecture, painting and design could communicate rational order and logical reason. 




Through Aug. 17 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak St., Oakland. 

238-2200. .