Monday, April 7, 2014

American Cool

Where: National Portrait Gallery

When: through September 7, 2014

I have to give the Portrait Gallery credit for even putting up this show - it's the sort of listing that makes no one completely happy, and will lead to nothing but bickering.  Who was included that should have been left off?  (My nominee: the woman pictured here.  I seem to remember Debbie Harry as more strung-out than cool.)  Who was conspicuous by his/her absence?  (George Clooney and Gene Kelly are my nominees.)

The Gallery lists their criteria for inclusion in the wall notes at the front of the show.  I won't go through them here, but will note that their definition of cool is a person who exudes the aura of something new and unattainable; it's an earned form of individuality.  They state that the figures included are the successful rebels of American culture, and that each is an original person without precedent in American culture.

The show is divided chronologically: the pre-1940 era gets one room, 1940-1959 gets several, 1960-1979 gets two (if my memory serves me correctly) and the years from 1980-present are in the hallway.  I would offer as a definition of cool that someone who is cool in one era would be cool in any era - it's hard to pull off.  Anybody can be Fonzie in his trademark leather jacket, the epitome of cool in the mid-1970s, but he looks a little dated now.  Paul Newman, on the other hand, will always be cool.

Some things of interest: the photograph of Jimi Hendrix (no points for guessing he's one of the honored) was taken by Linda McCartney.  It's a very good snapshot; I was unaware of her talent in this arena.  There's a photography of John Wayne that's truly bizarre.  It was taken two years before his breakout role in Stagecoach and depicts him in a fancy business suit, smoking a cigarette.  If you're interested in showing the cool side of John Wayne, wouldn't you show him in one of his movies, with Monument Valley as his backdrop?

Bruce Springsteen makes an appearance towards the end of the show.  I'd always said that a Springsteen concert is like a tent revival meeting, and apparently the curators of this show agree with me.  They describe his audience as a "secular congregation."  Always nice to have your analyses confirmed by no less an institution than the Smithsonian.

Verdict: This show is worth a visit - allow plenty of time; there are lots of people and each one has notes to read.  You won't agree with every choice, but there will be several people who will make you think, "Now that's cool."

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