American Cool at the National Portrait Gallery

Join curators Frank Goodyear and Joel Dinerstein in a sneak peek of their new show

Jimi Hendrix, 1942–1970 In the late 1960s Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) carried the blues into the 21st-century by turning the electric guitar into an instrument of vast capabilities and poetic expression. Through a brilliant manipulation of feedback and amplification, Hendrix created soundscapes of deep texture and distortion, of electronic waves and wah-wah. Often dressed in a rainbow riot of color, he wrote songs about other planets and experiences that fit the era’s hallucinogenic experiences and its mythology of alternate dimensions. On stage he was simultaneously self-possessed and otherworldly, playing the guitar with his teeth and behind his back, even setting it on fire. Born of mixed white, black and Cherokee ancestry, Hendrix was influenced by Elvis, Little Richard and Muddy Waters; honed his blues chops on the “chitlin’ circuit”; and recorded with the Isley Brothers and King Curtis. His searing instrumental version of the national anthem is a rare example of nonverbal social protest and remains the iconic sound of Woodstock. Linda McCartney (1942–1998), Platinum print, 1967 (printed later), National Portrait Gallery, gift of the photographer, Linda McCartney
Bessie Smith, 1894–1937 Bessie Smith was the most influential blues singer in history and the first major feminist voice in American music. With her deep, powerful contralto, Smith foregrounded an individual woman’s experience in her songs: she sang alternately with lusty pride and melancholy of sexual desire, economic hardship, loneliness, and transience. She drank and fought as hard as any man, ran her own vaudeville troupe, and once scared off a bunch of Klansmen by herself. During the Jim Crow era, Smith’s songs mediated the experience of the Great Migration out of the South and evoked intense emotional response from black audiences. A protégé of Ma Rainey, Smith sang of the road as a metaphor for life: “I’m a rambling woman . . . with a rambling mind.” Her artistic influence remains vital in artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, and Lucinda Williams. Janis Joplin put up half the money for Smith’s new gravestone in 1970. Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), Gelatin silver print, 1936, National Portrait Gallery
Muddy Waters (1913–1983) carried himself like the blues king of Chicago. Born McKinley Morganfield, he was a singer, guitarist, songwriter and bandleader. Waters was the central figure in the shift from country to urban blues and from acoustic to electric blues. He was the musical symbol of the Great Migration from South to North: his band captured the sound of industrial cities with pounding factory rhythms, searing guitar riffs and wailing harmonicas while his own stinging vocals surged into the mix. He was idolized by the musicians of the British invasion, and his records were passed hand to hand. He wrote many classic blues songs: “Got My Mojo Workin’” is akin to a blues national anthem; “The Blues Had a Baby (And They Named It Rock and Roll)” captures music history in a song title; and his “Rollin’ Stone” inspired the magazine, the band name, and Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Charles H. Stewart (born 1927), Gelatin silver print, c. 1960, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey
In 1944 the critic James Agee hailed Lauren Bacall (b.1924) as “the toughest girl Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while” and analyzed her style as combining “a dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness, and a special sweet-sourness.” Born and raised in Brooklyn by Jewish immigrants, Bacall worked as a model before director Howard Hawks brought her to Hollywood. She developed her trademark contralto by screaming for hours and was known simply as “The Look” for her signature seductive expression of lowered chin and half-closed eyes. Bacall married Humphrey Bogart in 1945, and they starred together in four classic film noirs. In middle age, she worked on Broadway, earning two Tony Awards, for Applause (1970) and Woman of the Year (1981). At 60, she played a fading star in Sweet Bird of Youth (1986); one critic described her as “slinky as a lynx, hot as pepper, cool as rain, dry as smoke.” Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898–1995), Reproduction print from 1949 original, Courtesy Alfred Eisenstaedt/LIFE
The poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) thought of his lifelong work Leaves of Grass as an extension of himself. He wanted people to read it “as if meeting a man” and offered this image on its title page: a plain workingman, relaxed if a bit arrogant, hat cocked at a rakish angle, ready for anything. Whitman invited his readers to value experience over education and advised each to take a journey on the “open road”: here was an American method for self-discovery and cool. Whitman remains the guiding light of American bohemia, from the Beats to Bob Dylan to the potential of every road trip. Samuel Hollyer (1826–1919), after daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison, Engraving, c. 1854–55, Published in Leaves of Grass, 1st edition, 1855, Private collection
Martin Schoeller’s photograph of Tony Hawk (b. 1968) pictures the skateboarder in the kitchen of his California home in 1999, the year in which he landed the first-ever “900” (two-and-a-half revolutions) in competition. A virtuoso known as the “Birdman,” Hawk is one part Michael Jordan and one part Evel Knievel. His tricks on the board are known for their creativity and daring. Having won his first competition at age 11 and turned professional at 14, he is the person most responsible for transforming an “outlaw” recreational pursuit into a global sporting phenomenon. While his street style has made him an icon of youth rebellion, he has been equally successful as an entrepreneur, launching his own line of sports equipment and a popular video game series. Other so-called extreme sports such as BMX biking and snowboarding owe much to Hawk’s achievements as a skater. Martin Schoeller (born 1968), Archival pigment print, 1999 (printed 2010), National Portrait Gallery
Nicknamed the “King of Cool,” Steve McQueen (1930-1980) was an avid motorcycle and sports car racer who performed many of his own stunts in a series of action thrillers, including The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), and Bullitt (1968). In William Claxton’s 1962 portrait, the actor drives his Jaguar convertible down Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. As one of the period’s highest-paid actors, McQueen often played the reluctant rebel. Beyond the camera, he maintained a distant relationship with Hollywood, avoiding the press and demanding an unrivaled degree of autonomy in his films. His tough loner persona had its roots in a difficult childhood. After stints in reform school and the Marines, he broke into acting and came to exemplify the self-confident man of action who conceals his emotions under a steely, calm exterior. William Claxton (1927–2008), Gelatin silver print, 1962, Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles, California
Miles Davis (1926-1991) remains the embodiment of jazz cool, and he was one of the great artists of the 20th-century. Like Picasso, he had several artistic periods: his bebop apprenticeship with Charlie Parker, cool jazz (1940s), modal jazz (1950s), fusion (1960s), and then experiments with ambient music and electronica. In the 1950s, Davis’s romantic muted trumpet solos floated coolly over his quintets and into the heart of orchestrations for Porgy and Bess or Sketches of Spain. After hearing Jimi Hendrix, he electrified his trumpet and surfed into chaotic soundscapes rife with dissonance and dense rhythms. Davis’s style added to his iconic power: he drove a red Ferrari, wore custom Italian suits, and spoke in a burnt whisper. A shy man who put on a mask of fierceness, he often withdrew into an insular private world where he struggled with substance abuse. He is one of the few jazz musicians in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Aram Avakian (1926–1987), Reproduction prints from 1955 originals, Courtesy Aram Avakian Collection
Madonna (b.1958) is a singer-songwriter, dancer, actress, auteur, producer and fashionista, who transformed the post-feminist landscape of American culture. As a new kind of ethnic street-smart woman in the 1980s, Madonna exploded across music, film and MTV while producing videos and concert tours combining dance-driven spectacle and erotic exhibitionism. Her thrift-store bohemian style influenced a generation of adolescent girls to layer up in fingerless gloves, fishnets, and religious necklaces. Madonna’s club-pop sensibility synthesized aspects of disco, gay culture and African American dance with the rock-and-roll theatricality of David Bowie and Deborah Harry. At times accused of cultural theft, she is rather an artistic omnivore, taking inspiration from European art films, Indian music, voguing, or African American culture. She was an early activist for gay rights and can point to an acclaimed (if minor) film career. At age 55, Madonna is arguably the most important female musical artists in recording history: her influence on such figures as Lady Gaga and Pink is immeasurable. Kate Simon (born 1953), Gelatin silver print, 1983 (printed 2013), Collection of the artist
Marlon Brando (1924-2004) embodied the rebel cool of the 1950s and defined the Method technique of acting. As Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Brando created a complex portrait of working-class male sexuality that prompted the first rage for torn T-shirts and blue jeans. In The Wild One (1953), Brando adapted biker style into a charismatic bad-boy attitude that made him a poster boy for rebellion: ever since, leather jackets and motorcycles have been accessories of cool. In On the Waterfront(1954), he gave one of Hollywood’s greatest performances. James Dean worshiped him; Jack Kerouac wanted Brando to play Dean Moriarty in a film version of On the Road. As Don Corleone in The Godfather (1972), Brando reigned over a cast full of his theatrical sons, and his next film, Last Tango in Paris (1972) was a revealing, self-conscious meditation on his persona and the art of acting. Working sporadically for his last three decades, Brando was often sought out for advice by Johnny Depp, Sean Penn and Edward Norton. Philippe Halsman (1906–1979), Gelatin silver print, 1950 (printed later), National Portrait Gallery
As a journalist, novelist, essayist, and screenwriter, Joan Didion (b. 1934) has been one of the key chroniclers of American life since 1965. A co-creator of New Journalism with Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, she became an instant role model for California women in the 1960s. Petite and yet powerfully demure, Didion displays a self-possession that belies her size: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, that people tend to forget my presence runs counter to their best interests.” Her prose is sparse and precise, as if “sculpted from dry ice,” the author Michael Cunningham once said, and her style is indebted to the California noir tradition of Raymond Chandler. Her essay collections capture the essence of decades: Slouching towards Bethlehem (1968), The White Album (1979), Miami (1987), and Political Fictions (2001). Julian Wasser (born 1943), Gelatin silver print, 1970, National Portrait Gallery
Following in a long line of distinguished actors known for playing villains, Benicio Del Toro (b. 1967) has now crafted a persona as an ethical rebel loner in the tradition of film noir. For shaping his acting style, Del Toro credits Robert Mitchum and Jack Nicholson as important influences. After a string of small parts, his breakout performance as a mumbling petty criminal in The Usual Suspects (1995) propelled him to Hollywood stardom. Yet it was his portrayal of a small-town cop seeking peace amid the U.S.–Mexican drug wars in Traffic (2000) that won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Del Toro’s quiet intensity and sense of purpose in that role served as an ethical counterweight to the film’s rampant violence and corruption. Acclaimed for his roles in independent films such as 21 Grams (2003) and Sin City (2005), Del Toro won the best actor award at Cannes for his portrayal of Che Guevara in the four-hour epic biopic Che (2008). Cass Bird (born 1975), Inkjet print, 2008 (printed 2012), National Portrait Gallery, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor
Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) remains the most iconic American male actor in history. Raised in an upper- class family and sent to private schools from which he was often expelled, Bogart was a natural rebel and showed more talent for playing gangsters and tough guys than leading men. During the Great Depression, he studied the vernacular speech and gestures of working-class men, and on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, he created a new heroic type—the cool, ethical rebel loner. As Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and as Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942), Bogart embodied the snarky independence of the rugged individualist of American myth. As detective, criminal, or soldier, he projected inner command in High Sierra (1941), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Key Largo (1948). Yet his best roles included star turns as psychopaths, journalists or cops. Married to Lauren Bacall, who cut his on-screen toughness with her own sass, he made “Bogart” a global brand name for stoic resilience in the postwar era. Philippe Halsman (1906–1979), Gelatin silver print, 1944, National Portrait Gallery
James Dean (1931-1955) was the first American teenager realistically captured by Hollywood, and he stamped adolescence with a half-squinting look of tormented yearning and tentative tenderness. Beautiful and bisexual, Dean remains “the poet of what it’s like to be young, lost, or alone,” one biographer wrote. In his short, meteoric career, he combined small-town midwestern innocence (Indiana childhood, East of Eden [1955]) with mythic Americana (as Jett Rink in Giant [1956]), and urban bohemia (still photos in New York City) with the automotive escapism of suburban high school kids (Rebel Without a Cause [1955]). His appeal came from being “able to expose the emotion on-screen that he couldn’t in real life,” one close friend said. Dean’s persona is still often invoked by young American actors, and his life is now myth, as if captured by the formulaic phrase, “live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.” As one writer claimed about Dean’s cool, “he made adolescent defiance heroic.” Roy Schatt (1909–2002), Gelatin silver print, 1954, National Portrait Gallery, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Schatt
After Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) escaped from slavery, he invented the concept of African American public individuality, investing it with a fierce public dignity evident in this image. Self-educated, Douglass became a powerful orator and writer advocating racial pride and social change through direct, even violent political action. The women’s rights leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton referred to his bearing this way: “he stood there like an African prince, conscious of his dignity and power, grand in his physical proportions, majestic in his wrath.” His example provided a foundation for the emergence of the concept of cool itself from African American culture in the 1940s. Ambrotype, 1856, National Portrait Gallery, acquired through the generosity of an anonymous donor
Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), says the critic Robert Christgau, was the greatest American singer of the 20th-century, for in every phrase his blend of Hoboken street swagger and colloquial ease “turned English into American and American into music.” A teen idol in his twenties, a critical success in his thirties, he was by age fifty an icon, synonymous with the dark glamour of late-night jazz clubs and the criminal underworld that controlled them. When Lauren Bacall told Humphrey Bogart and his friends that they looked like a “rat pack,” an elite, legendary circle of friendship was born, with Sinatra as its central figure: suave but tough, a master of breath control and the common touch. He had a defensive, defiant pride in his Italian heritage and often dodged allegations of Mafia support. The cultural hero of the Greatest Generation, Sinatra was and is beloved by singers and musicians the world over, from Antonio Carlos Jobim to Miles Davis, from Bruce Springsteen to Bono. Herman Leonard (1923–2010), Gelatin silver print, c. 1956, Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey
Elvis Presley, 1935–1977. Before Elvis, there was nothing. —John Lennon, 1965. When I first heard Elvis’ voice, I just knew that I wasn’t going to work for anybody; and nobody was going to be my boss. He is the deity supreme of rock and roll religion as it exists in today’s form. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail. —Bob Dylan, 1977 Roger Marshutz (1929–2007), Gelatin silver print, 1956, The Estee Stanley Private Collection
The cofounder and lead singer of the new wave punk band Blondie, Deborah Harry (b.1945) carved a path for female rockers with her good-meets-bad fusion of unattainable sexuality, haughty detachment, and streetwise style. A regular at the downtown clubs and the Chelsea docks, Harry was a pioneer in the New York City punk scene and a bona fide fashion icon. Yet her untamed stage moves, sophisticated music and edgy voice managed to stave off a blonde bombshell stereotype. In 1978 Harry challenged the notion that musicians—particularly women—needed to be accessible: “I’m against the idea that rock stars have to live a life that’s completely understandable or predictable to their audience. . . . Maybe I’ll just be the mysterious figure that’ll never be able to be truly defined. Maybe that’s what my thing is.” This portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe captures Harry’s tough beauty and defiant attitude. Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989), Gelatin silver print, 1978, Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, New York City
As a singer-songwriter, director, composer, and impresario of world music, David Byrne (b. 1952) has been described as the “thinking man’s rock star.” A shy art student, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he teamed up with his friends Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth to create the thoughtful, danceable industrial rock of the Talking Heads. Collaborating with Brian Eno, Byrne led the band’s evolution from venues like CBGB into studio-driven world music—first with "Remain in Light" (1980)—while also composing scores for Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Jonathan Demme. As Talking Heads concerts evolved into theatrical funk spectacles, Byrne became a nerd fashion icon in his oversize white suit, as captured in "Stop Making Sense" (1985). Byrne founded the world music record label Luaka Bop, and has more recently favored Latin American rhythms in his own compositions. Marcia Resnick (born 1950), Gelatin silver print, 1981, National Portrait Gallery
Duke Ellington called Billie Holiday (1915-1959) “the essence of cool,” a reference to her equipoise in performance. The most influential jazz vocalist of all time, Holiday had a controlled emotional power that transformed even trite ballads into romantic short stories. Born Eleonora Harris and partially raised in a New York City brothel, she crafted a cool vocal style by tempering Bessie Smith’s shouting power with Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic nuance, then honed her craft on the road with the Count Basie Orchestra. Lester Young named her “Lady Day,” and in their chamber jazz classics, such as “All of Me,” voice and saxophone curl around each other into smoky swirls of late-night yearning. Late in life Holiday, a drug addict and survivor of abusive relationships, sang in a cracked, broken voice that remained true to the jazz practice of self-expression. In this iconic photograph, Holiday emerges as if from black satin, part African mask and part Hollywood diva, dragging her shadow along. Bob Willoughby (1927–2009), Gelatin silver print, 1951 (printed 1991), National Portrait Gallery, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bob Willoughby
Whether Audrey Hepburn (1929-1933) was playing a princess or a bookstore clerk, she was always the epitome of elegance and grace. While known as a trendsetter who projected an effortless poise on screen, she endured a difficult youth during World War II in Nazi-occupied Holland, two failed marriages, and periods of self-doubt. Despite these personal challenges, Hepburn publicly maintained a doe-eyed impishness that made her a leading box-office star. During a period when women were often cast as the male lead’s love interest, she insisted on being a central character. As Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)—with her large sunglasses, oversize cigarette holder, and little black Givenchy dress—she became an icon for a new generation of American women. As a film critic for the New York Times once enthused, “What a burden she lifted from women! Here was proof that looking good need not be synonymous with looking bimbo.” Philippe Halsman (1906–1979), Gelatin silver print, 1955, National Portrait Gallery
In a prolific yet short-lived career, Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) became a leading figure in the 1980s art world. Having run away from home as a teenager, he supported himself initially by selling homemade postcards and sweatshirts on the street. He emerged as an underground celebrity in 1978, when he and a friend began spray-painting cryptic social messages and the tag SAMO (short for “Same Old Shit”) all over Lower Manhattan. Working in a graffiti style, he moved into producing artworks that combined expressively drawn elements like figures and skulls with incisive words and phrases. Soon he was exhibiting at major galleries and museums and collaborating with Andy Warhol. As a black man in a predominantly white art scene, he found himself increasingly caught between a desire for fame and a fear of being exploited by that world. Like his heroes Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, Basquiat burned bright, but died young of a drug overdose. Dmitri Kasterine (born 1932), Gelatin silver print, 1986, National Portrait Gallery, acquired through the generosity of Beverly and Norman Cox, in honor of their daughter Cara

What do we mean when we say someone is cool? To be cool means to exude the aura of something new and uncontainable. Cool is the opposite of innocence or virtue. Someone cool has a charismatic edge and a dark side. Cool is an earned form of individuality.

Each generation has certain individuals who bring innovation and style to a field of endeavor while projecting a certain charismatic self-possession. They are the figures selected for this exhibition: the successful rebels of American culture.

The legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young created the modern usage of  “cool” in the 1940s. At first it meant being relaxed in one’s environment against oppressive social forces, but within a generation it became a password for stylish self-control.

This exhibition does not reflect our opinion of who’s cool. Each cool figure was considered with the following historical rubric in mind and possesses at least three elements of this singular American self-concept: An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; Cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; Iconic power, or instant visual recognition; A recognized cultural legacy.

Every individual featured in the exhibition created an original persona without precedent in American culture. These photographs capture the complex relationship between the real-life person, the image embraced by fans and the media, and the person’s artistic work.

What does it mean when a generation claims a certain figure as cool? What qualities does this person embody at that historical moment? “American Cool” explores these questions through photography, history, and popular culture. In this exhibition, cool is rendered visible, as shot by some of the finest art photographers of the past century.

"American Cool," featuring 100 photographs of icons who have contributed an original artistic vision to American culture and are symbolic figures of their time, is on view Feb. 7 through Sept. 7, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery.

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