WASHINGTON — James Dean is leaning back, drawing on a cigarette, looking away from the camera as a mirror behind him in the black and white photograph creates a shadow image of a good-looking young man who, even in a quiet moment, seems remote, resistant to what’s expected of him.
But who else is? What does it take? And what is it about America that’s defined “cool” to the world?
The National Portrait Gallery has decided it knows and has opened an unusual exhibit, “American Cool,” through Sept. 7. The exhibit features 100 photographs of American men and women who define “cool,” including two Tar Heels – jazz musician Thelonious Monk and basketball player Michael Jordan.
“ ‘American Cool’ is about America’s greatest cultural export – cool – and who embodies it,” Kim Sajet, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, said at the media preview for the exhibit.
Certainly Dean, during his brief life, created a new American icon – the rebellious teen – in the stifling, strict atmosphere of the 1950s. He defined himself in the film “Rebel Without a Cause,” his most celebrated role, before dying in 1955 at age 24 in a crash while driving his Porsche.
And being cool, according to this exhibit, is very much tied to being a rebel.
Most of the personalities photographed here are in the arts: actors Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Audrey Hepburn; jazz musicians Monk, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker; singers Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Chrissie Hynde; painters Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.
A few sports figures make the grade, such as Jordan and boxer Muhammad Ali.
But there are no elected politicians or anyone from the business world beyond Apple’s co-founder, the late Steve Jobs.
The show’s curators, Joel Dinerstein and Frank Goodyear III, who described themselves in an interview as cultural historians, are quick to say they aren’t making subjective judgments. They aren’t deciding who’s in with the in crowd.
They’ve laid out four criteria to be cool, and each of the 100 photos picked for the show had to have at least three of the elements:
“An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; the embodiment of cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; iconic power, or instant visual recognition; and a recognized cultural legacy.”
“They are the successful rebels of American culture,” said Goodyear, who added that the criteria came down to being “edgy, dark, mysterious.” They were also successful at what they did, not necessarily in making a lot of money but in excelling at singing, writing, painting, performing.
Goodyear, a former curator of photographs at the gallery, is now a co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine.
“Cool is an American concept,” said Dinerstein, a professor at Tulane University who teaches a class called “The History of Being Cool in America.” “It comes out of our culture, being middle class and creating a new persona. It is a singular American self-identification.”
The curators first met in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin and are so engaged in the subject of cool that they finish each other’s sentences.
The father of ‘cool’
They’ve even pinpointed the birth of cool: The father of cool was Lester Young, the Mississippi-born jazz tenor saxophonist who honed his craft in Kansas City. He was the soloist for the Count Basie Orchestra and created a new smooth sound, often accompanying blues singer Billie Holiday, who’s also on the cool list.
“ ‘Cool’ was a 1940s jazz slang term,” Dinerstein said. “Cool was born in New York City and became a national sensation and a global obsession.”
Young would say “I’m cool” – launching the use of the term – and wear a porkpie hat and sunglasses in the darkened clubs, creating a style standard for musicians for generations.
“He created an aesthetic of detachment in music, style and public deportment,” Dinerstein said.