It is difficult to define with precision what it means to be cool. The concept—born in United States— has become a global fetish without an expiration date. It could be defined as a human quality that implies some rebellion, certain tendency to explore the edgy side of oneself and the environment. Cool is the antithesis of naive; it refers to uniqueness and individualism.
This term, simple as it is, was coined during the 1940s by the legendary saxophonist Lester Young. Initially it only referred to individuals who were able to maintain equanimity during rapid social changes, those who seemed to be comfortable in their own skin no matter the circumstances. However, with the passage of time the modern usage of the word has come to mean a psychological state of self-control, of an individual’s inherent leadership and the ability to mark the guidelines of an accelerated society.
The concept has acquired such historic and social complexity that it has become a subject of research for curators at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The result is American Cool, an unprecedented photographic exhibition featuring some of America’s most emblematic personalities. The Smithsonian also includes a selection of film clips, music videos, and recordings from the musicians selected for the exhibit.
The evolution of this term and its presence in the American vernacular is the inspiration for an exhibit that presents “cool” through photographs presented in different formats. From Louise Brooks to Willie Nelson and from Billie Holiday to Clint Eastwood, American Cool brings together under one roof the “successful American rebels” who excelled in various fields such as music, sports, cinema, art, literature, and even political activism.
But this exhibition is not a random collection of celebrity photographs. American Cool is the culmination of a complex selection that began with more than 500 names. After five years of research, the curators were able to establish clear criteria for the final compilation of images: the personalities chosen for the exhibition had to be recognizable to the public with an original artistic vision of American culture symbolic of a particular historical moment.
(L) Miles Davis; (R) Audrey Hepburn.
Music also plays an important role in this show. The songs filtered through the gallery spaces have special meaning. From the endearing sound of Muddy Watters, Duke Ellington’s jazz tunes and the folk revival of Bod Dylan to the strident punk aesthetics of Deborah Harris, American Cool is a journey steeped in nostalgia. Also on view, iconic film images that have remained embedded in our collective memory, indispensable literary works and sociopolitical speeches that changed the course of American history. This exhibition unites and juxtaposes culture and counterculture in an exalted homage to the echo of the past and the sound of our present.
Through the years, each generation of Americans has had a handful of luminaries that redefined and molded the idea of cool. The mere projection of their individualism, charisma and personality, is sufficient to inject style and innovation to a generation of peers, trying to make their voices heard. “Our goal is to provoke intergenerational debates”, says Joel Dinerstien, professor at New Orleans’ Tulane University and curator of the show. “The older generation can explain to their grandchildren who was Gene Krupa and why he is important, and the younger kids can tell their grandparents about the relevance of Jay-Z”.
But what has attracted the public to the second floor of the National Portrait Gallery is not limited to those cool rebels, but the signatures of the photographers who managed to capture the essence of their personalities. With names like Annie Leibovitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon, among others, American Cool also manages to add to its list of icons those who always remained behind the lens. ■