Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury

September 19, 2008 - January 5, 2009
Kemper Art Museum

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture At Midcentury takes a look at the broad cultural zeitgeist of "cool" that influenced the visual, graphic, and decorative arts, furniture, architecture, music, and film produced in California in the 1950s and early 1960s. The exhibition, organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, includes a jazz lounge; a media bar with film, animation, and television programming; a period art gallery of hard-edge abstract paintings; selections of art, architectural, and documentary photography; and an interactive timeline that highlights examples of California, national, and international culture and history in the 1950s. Birth of the Cool examines the dynamic community of artists who overlapped and interacted in Southern California at midcentury--Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Charles and Ray Eames, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Helen Lundeberg, and others who played a seminal role in the development of the iconic high modernist style.

"The show is inevitable fun ... The exhibition also represents a small seismic tremor for the way postwar LA art history is finally coming to be understood." Los Angeles Times

"Both entertaining and thought provoking. What emerges is not just a style but a spirit and an ethos that are in many ways diametrically opposite those of East Coast Abstract Expressionism. Angst-free, not monumental, anti-grandiose: California cool is laid back yet cleanly articulated, impersonal yet intimate, strict yet hedonistic, and seriously playful." New York Times

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National Tour

Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, California
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas

Exhibition Catalog

Birth of the Cool is accompanied by a 300-page, fully illustrated book that provides a thorough reassessment of this important period. The art writers and cultural historians contributing to the catalog include Thomas Hine on the culture of cool in midcentury art and popular culture; Elizabeth Smith on aspects of the domestic in midcentury modern architecture; Lorraine Wild on graphic design and advertising; Frances Colpitt on the hard-edge abstract painting of the 1950s; Dave Hickey on West Coast jazz; Bruce Jenkins on the crossover between animation and experimental film; and Michael Boyd on the migration of modernist architecture and design from Europe to California. Curator Elizabeth Armstrongs introduction explores the parallels and affinities among the distinctive rhythmic and formal vocabularies found in these various cultural forms and attitudes and the resurgence of interest in this period and style today. This retrospective volume also includes a timeline, bibliography, and contemporaneous texts from key publications of the period.

Educator resources

The Museum's Education department connects special exhibitions with students of all levels through specialized tours, curriculum plans, hands-on activities, and more. Download the Connections Guide for the exhibition for more details.

Traveling Exhibition Support

Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury is organized by the Orange County Museum of Art and is curated by Elizabeth Armstrong, deputy director for public programs and chief curator. Major support for Birth of the Cool is provided by Brent R. Harris, The Segerstrom Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. Significant support is provided by Bente and Gerald Buck, Twyla and Chuck Martin, Jayne and Mark Murrel, Pam and Jim Muzzy, Barbara and Victor Klein, and Victoria and Gilbert E. LeVasseur Jr. Additional support is provided by Toni and Steven Berlinger and Patricia and Max Ellis.

Corporate sponsorship is provided by Gucci and Design Within Reach.

Local Exhibition Support

Additional support for the St. Louis presentation of Birth of the Cool is provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency; the Regional Arts Commission; James M. Kemper, Jr.; the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation; the Hortense Lewin Art Fund; Centro Modern Furnishings; and individual contributors to the Kemper Art Museum.