What do we mean when we say someone is cool? Cool is a supreme compliment that evokes public figures who carry a social charge of rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge and mystery. Cool is the zeitgeist taking embodied form.
Cool is an original American sensibility and remains a global obsession. In the early 1940s, legendary jazz saxophonist Lester Young brought this central African-American concept into the modern vernacular and it became a password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a laid-back artistic mode of performance, a certain stylish stoicism. A cool person has a situation under control, and with style. Cool has been embodied in jazz musicians such as Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie, in actors such as Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and Steve McQueen, in rock and rollers such as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith and many other figures from the worlds of literature, art, comedy, sports and political activism. American Cool refers to those who have contributed an original artistic vision to American culture symbolic of a given historical moment.
This exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated catalogue with essays by Frank H. Goodyear III, National Portrait Gallery associate curator of photographs, and Joel Dinerstein, James H. Clark Endowed Chair in American Civilization Director, New Orleans Center for the Gulf South Director, Tulane University.
National Portrait Gallery
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National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.