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SurfGuitar101 Forums » The Shallow End »

Permalink "What Postwar California Gave to Art, Design and Cultur

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I think many people on SG101 (especially those that enjoyed the book "Pop Surf Culture" by Brian Chidester and Domenic Priore) might be interested in this article (though, sorry, no surf music content):

The Wall Street Journal
MARCH 4, 2009

What Postwar California Gave to Art, Design and Culture

Austin, Texas

The Renaissance had a word for it: sprezzatura, the quality of apparent ease that the perfect courtier brought to all his high-wire acts: swordplay, flute-playing, poetry-writing, singing, lovemaking. A later articulation of the same quality: A hundred years ago Vaslav Nijinsky, when asked how he managed his gravity-defying grands jetés, said "I merely leap and pause."

Recklessness, abandon, sang-froid, talent: Fifty years ago it was called "cool." It still is. That's the quality celebrated in "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury" at the University of Texas' Blanton Museum of Art (now through May 17). Originally organized by the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, this is the kind of small didactic show, based on a somewhat shaky premise and promising a mingling of many arts, that nevertheless manages to delight and instruct in often surprising ways.

Something happened in Southern California after World War II. European émigré artists and intellectuals, having escaped Nazi Germany, had set down roots. New postwar prosperity led people to move west. After a decade of the war effort, industry resumed, offering new materials for civilian products. The stars were aligned. Industrial design, film and television, painting and jazz all bloomed in the desert. A new aesthetic emerged.

This show's title, borrowed from Miles Davis's album "Birth of the Cool," suggests unnecessary special pleading. Even though Davis's 1949 recording signaled a new musical development, he was an East Coast guy all the way. Los Angeles had no monopoly on the cool, the hip, or anything else. Even the famous furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, as well as the sleek glass-and-steel, often cantilevered architecture of Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig and John Lautner, would not have been possible without the commanding inspiration of modernist masters like Frank Lloyd Wright (whose 1959 Guggenheim Museum in New York is pictured in the exhibit) and Mies Van der Rohe. Or the Danish modern furniture -- rosewood and teak -- that filled domestic spaces along the East Coast throughout the '50s.

Anyone even approaching senior-citizen status will get a kick out of the historical timeline -- a walk down Memory Lane -- with which the show begins. Along three walls in the first "room" of this open space, the curators have mounted magazine covers, video and audio clips, newspapers ads, and other memorabilia from 1959, a year that began with the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper and that also included the rise to national prominence of Jack and Jackie Kennedy; Maynard G. Krebs (the first TV slacker, or beatnik, on "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"); Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," with its own Mount Rushmore version of an L.A.-styled Neutra house; Louis Kahn's Salk Institute; and the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Time Out."

Having whetted our senses with these snippets of style, the show then opens into a grander space, where we find interesting clusters of objects on the floor, especially a grouping of 13 Eames furniture pieces, a bright kaleidoscope of shapes, materials and colors. The molded plywood for the famous chairs is used, as well, in a Quadriflex stereo speaker, which is itself -- a circle within a box, within another box -- a kind of painterly abstraction.

What distinguishes all of the pieces is lightness. Everything seems to float, even an Eames surfboard coffee table from 1957 that is hung on a wall like a shield. So do a chair by Maurice Martiné of walnut, aluminum and cotton cord, and another by Dan Johnson of steel, brass and rattan. If "Cool" has any meaning in furniture, it suggests release, levitation and bounce. ("Cool" also owed a lot to the materials being developed for the burgeoning aerospace industry in Southern California.)

The furniture seems to be having a discussion with the pictures on the walls -- "hard-edged" modern works by Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, John McLaughlin and Helen Lundeberg. This is perhaps the most instructive part of the show, especially if one wanders upstairs to see the Blanton's fine assortment of New York School paintings from the late 1950s and early 1960s. By comparison to the sheer painterliness, richness and varied palettes of their East Coast Abstract Expressionist cousins (Joan Mitchell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler), the colors of the California painters seem brighter, their lines sharper, and their edges cleaner. (I kept thinking of Richard Diebenkorn's much more beautiful "Ocean Park" series, more than a decade in the future.)

One of the most arresting pictures is Karl Benjamin's 1957 oil-on-linen "Small Planes: White, Blue, and Pink," whose multiple tetragonal shapes look like boxes that have been mounted, or spread, but simultaneously seem to float weightlessly on the picture plane. Again, the painting embodies that quality of lightness that we have come to associate with coolness.

One darkened corner of the exhibit features "Tops," a three-minute film (1959) that Charles and Ray Eames did for "Stars of Jazz," a television series, and completed in a week. Music accompanies the action. Children's tops, as well as a dreidel and a gyroscope, are seen from above, below, close up, far off, singly and in groups. Pictured spinning or dancing like Wordsworth's daffodils, they combine balance and drunkenness; it's as if the Eameses had taken a Giorgio Morandi still life and made his bottles start to turn.

The show leaves the impression that one synonym for "cool" is neither "hip," nor "sleekly rational," nor "laid-back." It is, unexpectedly, "innocent." The '50s died officially on Nov. 22, 1963. But even before, in the mid-1950s, we had the "angel-headed hipsters" of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the escapades of Jack Kerouac's heroic wanderers in "On the Road," the nascent Civil Rights movement, and Castro's revolution. Still, the postwar generation had hopefulness, too often mistaken by cultural historians for conformity and repression.

When we look at the pictures of the elegant June Cleaver ladies and their tie-wearing gentlemen in the sleek houses overlooking L.A. (think a West Coast version of "Mad Men"), and especially at William Claxton's gorgeous black-and-white photos of jazz musicians (and hear their music through the overhead speakers) -- a smiling, barefoot June Christy; a saxophone-carrying Art Pepper mounting a dusty, tall Los Angeles hill; even the tragic Chet Baker on the prow of a sailboat -- we might say to ourselves "how young they all are."

Mr. Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University.

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That was an interesting read. I know it's just my own "guitarcentric" perspective, but I always think surveys like this do themselves a disservice when they leave out Fender instruments. As we know, those years (approx 1957--1963) were the pinnacle for Fender and represent both the period and California style perfectly.

There are often these arbitrary time lines--i.e "from the death of Buddy Holly to the JFK assassination", and the loss of innocence. As the writer points out, The Beat generation was already lamenting the loss of innocence in the post war 50s. Yes, I think about the era as one of optimism--but to my mind always tempered by paranoia after Russia tested its first nuke and beat us into space. The aliens from outer space movies (especially Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are great metaphors for this.

Still, I think it was the rise of the youth culture in California during those years, and the way Hollywood portrayed it to the rest of the world that has had the most lasting impact.

And not a word about Gidget!

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