CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, Debbie Harry, Lauren Bacall, and Miles Davis are a few of the iconic faces in “American Cool” at the National Portrait Gallery.
Snap! Hiding his face behind a pair of jet-black sunglasses in 1955, Miles Davis offers his trumpet up to a recording studio mic.
Snap! Whippet-thin, Bob Dylan tosses a baby-faced stare to Richard Avedon in Central Park in 1965.
Snap! In 1989, Willie Nelson aims his mug, as weather-worn as his beloved Texas landscape.
These images and 97 others make up “American Cool,” a striking roll call of icons captured by fine art photographers including Henri Cartier- Bresson, Diane Arbus, and Annie Leibovitz at the National Portrait Gallery. Cocurators Joel Dinerstein, professor of American Civilization at Tulane University in New Orleans, and Frank H. Goodyear III, codirector of Bowdoin College Museum of Art, have formalized a classic dinner-party query: Call out 100 Americans whose achievements are as distinct as their mystique.
“We agreed,” explains Dinerstein, “each person had to have an original style. Second, they had to be a rebel. Third, there has to be a high level of iconicity. Literally, they have to be someone that you’d recognize just by looking at them. And last, they have to be enormously significant within their art form or sport.... Everybody had to have three of these four, but not everybody had four.”
Adds Dinerstein, “‘Cool’ is not a synonym for being nice or heroic. Martin Luther King Jr. is not in the exhibit. [He] was never cool—he was heroic and something of a saint in American life.”
Also worth noting: “Hip” and “cool,” as concepts and as words, came out of black jazz culture. “These were not used by anybody except jazz musicians in the 1940s,” explains Dinerstein. “‘Cool’ itself became this term that people were just drawn to in the ’50s. Part of the exhibition is about understanding that generations actually change the meaning of cool.”
Accordingly, everyone from Billie Holiday to Jay Z represents the irrepressible spirit of American popular music. But as everyone knows, “hip” is larger than the reach of a radio.
“We wanted to show ‘cool’ as a national phenomenon,” says Goodyear, “one that extended beyond the world of popular music and [emphasized] its importance in a range of fields.” So the exhibition also includes portraits of Steve McQueen, Susan Sarandon, and Mohammad Ali.
And—like it or not—aesthetics come into play. For inclusion, the inhabitants of “American Cool” had to show their best faces before the camera’s lens. “There were plenty of interesting, rebellious figures who we thought about for this show,” admits Goodyear, “but we couldn’t find a great picture of them. All of a sudden, it suggested to us that there is something about one’s ability to present publicly this face that is a defining characteristic of cool.”
Subjective to the core, “American Cool” is sure to get visitors talking through spring and summer. “This isn’t the last word on cool,” says Dinerstein. “We’re hoping it’s the first word of a new conversation.” “American Cool” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery from February 7 to September 7, 2014. 8th and F Sts. NW, 202-633-8300