Last chance to see a really 'Cool' exhibit

Chris Bergeron

If Fonzie from "Happy Days" was your guide to being cool, you're probably square as Bermuda shorts and saddle shoes.

Back in the early '50s, real hep cats absorbed the aristocracy of cool from originals like Chet Baker, Ray and Charles Eames and believe it or not Hugh Hefner.

Dig it.

So slip on your shades, Daddy-o, and hop in the '56 Mercury Fury of your dreams. Cruise on over to see "Birth of the Cool," a state-of-mind posing as an utterly engaging exhibit at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover.

Subtitled "California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury," this rare show simultaneously satisfies the senses and intellect by presenting the fascinating people and objects that shaped American tastes at a critical juncture after World War II and before the country turned psychedelic.

Created by Elizabeth Armstrong of the Orange County Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery version of "Birth of the Cool" was organized by Allison Kemmerer, curator of art after the 1950s.

"I think the exhibit isn't so much trying to define cool as to show viewers California as it was in the 1950s and let them figure it out for themselves," she said. "The influence of the high style of the '50s and '60s on contemporary art, design, music and film cannot be underestimated. More than 50 years have gone by and it's still cool."

As revealed by this exhibit, cool was a look, a feel, a sound, an attitude and an ethic the Tao of America in 1959 that had to come naturally. For poseurs like author Norman Mailer, trying too hard was tantamount to wearing a sign that said "Square."

Through more than 200 objects, including art and architecture, jazz and photography, cartoons and vintage TV shows, visitors can tour the "land that time forgot" but movies didn't California in the 1950s, where it all blossomed in a mushroom cloud of nonchalance.

Anyone older than 50 will be transported to evenings in front of an RCA or Zenith TV watching Ed "Kookie" Byrnes in "77 Sunset Strip" slick back his hair.

For those who grew up dancing the Moon Walk or plugged into an iPod, you'll meet the catalysts of cool who inspired knock-offs like Johnny Depp and Justin Timberlake, who assumed the prefabricated mantle of cool without earning it.

Comprehensive but never overwhelming, the exhibit selects the objects, artworks and people who made "cool" into a genuine style before attitude became a marketable commodity.

You'll see steel and glass houses with windows for walls and views of the lonely cities below. There's the Eames signature sculpted chairs and Karl Benjamin's abstract oils, both expressing pure form as perfect as Euclidian geometry.

Tune in to "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" or join Hef in his "Playboy Penthouse" to see two very different guys navigating the murky shoals of sex, love and chicks either too reluctant or too eager for kicks.

If you want to feel the times' languid pulse, put on earphones and listen to Baker's smoldering vocals and wailing trumpet.

While some galleries focus on avant-garde furniture, hard-edged abstract painting and even seminal cartoon characters like the Road Runner and Gerald McBoing Boing, who conducted animated symphonies in his head, the exhibit weaves them together like strands in a fuse that, once lit, set off later cultural explosions.

While no exact definition of cool emerges, the show features a cavalcade of trend-setting hipsters like Miles Davis and Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra and Alvin Lustig, who designed the eye-catching covers for classic '50s books including Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell" and Nathaniel West's "Miss Lonelyhearts."

Most surprisingly, Hefner, who today resembles a geriatric lounge lizard, is resurrected as a swinging cultural avatar who deflated outdated notions of post-World War II masculinity to forge a new male who could handle sleek cars and hi-fi's, and serve cocktails and the ladies with effortless composure.

Watching a fabulous clip of "Playboy's Penthouse" where Hef schmoozes with silky smooth Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, we realize he was among the first to bring multiracial programming into America's living rooms. He was so far ahead of his time that Southern sponsors dumped him and the show went off the air in a year, so Middle America ended up watching those wholesome Cartwright brothers in "Bonanza."

While visitors can listen to Miles Davis' "Birth of the Cool," which gave the show its name, it's too bad they can't plop into the Eames functional chairs, run their hands over the Mercury's bodacious fins or just lounge in one of the spacious glass homes immortalized in evocative black-and-white photos by Julius Shulman.

It's impossible to see William Claxon's photo of Ornette Coleman with his eyes ablaze, James Bond smoking in a tux and playing bacarat or JFK and Jackie gliding like royalty to the inaugural ball and not grasp that cool combined self-possessed superiority and live-wire performance art in ways rarely duplicated.

Wandering through the exhibit, I eavesdropped on other visitors trying to decide who was really cool then and now. They tossed around names like Lena Horne and Britney Spears; Annette Funicello and Allen Ginsberg; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Michael Jordan; Peggy Lee and Madonna.

No one could agree. And I realized that's what makes this exhibit so cool.


The Addison Gallery of American Art, on the campus of Phillips Academy in Andover, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free. The exhibit closes today, and heads next to the Oakland Museum of California and the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas.

Also on view at the Addison through July 13 is "Accomodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke." The exhibition of 85 black-an-white photographs offers viewers a depictions of how Americans build their lives within a natural world that rarely meets their idealized expectations. Known for his large-format landscape photographs, Gohlke has established himself as a leading American photographer. .

For more information, call 978-749-4015 or visit

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