What is Cool?


It’s difficult. Keeping track of all the things people recommend checking out around town (especially when that “town” is Washington, DC), or wherever I may be traveling. But when a friend suggested visiting the American Cool exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, it was a no brainer. As a person who is fascinated with cool and pop culture, she had me at “it’s an exhibit of what’s cool.”

American Cool at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7, 2014.
American Cool at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery through Sept. 7, 2014.

Of course that’s a bit of an oversimplification. American Cool is a photography exhibit that answers the question, ‘what is cool?’ by identifying figures throughout America’s past that “fit” the curator’s definition. At first, I had my doubts. But in retrospect, the National Portrait Gallery nailed it from my point of view. That’s no small feat, because “cool” is somewhat subjective.

This spectacularly curated exhibit features photography of “cool” artists, musicians, actors and writers from the past 75 years. To be featured in the exhibit, curators considered the following rubric:

  1. The person had an original artistic vision that was carried off with signature style
  2. The person represented cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation
  3. The person had iconic power or instant visual recognition
  4. The person is recognized as a cultural legacy

Using this criteria, the exhibit is organized into four categories of cool: pre-1940; 1940-1959, the birth of cool which included a lot of jazz musicians and actors; 1960-1979, cool and the counter-culture where cool was a badge of opposition to the system; and 1980’s – Present, legacies of cool.


The Birth of Cool
The Birth of Cool


Photography is strictly forbidden in the exhibit, so I can’t share the some of the dramatic portraits. (Ok, I snuck one photo on my iPhone and I totally feel guilty about. The other two images were taken with permission.) But I will mention a few favorites and what intrigued me about them.

  • My personal favorite, Marvin Gaye. I was really drawn to the image and the emotion it conveyed, you could feel the years of heartache and turmoil. (okay, this was the one, wow, what a picture and yes, I still feel guilty)
  • Walt Frazer. Interestingly, I think that there were less than five color portraits and this was one of them. Frazer was selected in part for his ability to “connect cool back to slavery when a black person had to talk insults and opposition every day without anger.”
  • John Travolta. Also one of the few color images in the exhibit. I wasn’t surprised to see Travolta made the exhibit. What was interesting, to me, was the description next to his portrait: he “established cool through dance, he projects self-control through style, gyrating hips, twirling on the club floor, two stepping or vamping with subtle gestures.” This is like literary poetry. About Travolta!

My only minor criticism of the exhibit was that descriptions talk about the person, versus the photograph. And many of the photographs merited their own write-up. The only exception to this was Billie Holliday’s photo—which was so stunning that (kudos) it was addressed in the vignette.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the exhibit, be sure not to skip the wall about the “Alt-100.” It’s an additional 100 figures curators considered for the exhibit, but who didn’t quite make the list.

Personally, I thought Samuel L Jackson and Isaac Hayes should have made the cut. As a big Doors fan, I was happy to see Jim Morrison noted but have to agree, he did not meet all the criteria the curators set forth. Same for Dr Dre. Then there are a few ‘say wha…?” but I’ll let you decide who falls into that category.

American Cool will be on exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery through September 7, 2014. Whether you are a local or visitor, I strongly recommend seeing the exhibit. It’s well worth the time. Exactly how good was it? Worth purchasing the coffee table book in the museum gift shop, which is what we did.

Follow my blog with Bloglovin