“Birth of the Cool” showcases 1950s California art, design and culture

From painting and architecture to music, film, furniture and the graphic arts, 1950s Los Angeles was an epicenter of American modernism.

Beginning Sept. 19, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum will present “Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury,” a sprawling multimedia exhibition that investigates how the sleek West Coast aesthetic — at once playful and poised, laid-back and sharply articulated — emerged as cultural shorthand for crisp sophistication.

Organized by the Orange County Museum of Art, “Birth of the Cool” — named for the groundbreaking 1957 album by Miles Davis — includes more than 200 objects exploring the influences, relationships and affinities that bound together a disparate group of artists from a variety of fields and backgrounds.

The installation, echoing the period it covers, includes a jazz lounge; a gallery of abstract paintings; and a media bar with film, animation and television programming. Also on view will be a variety of archival and documentary images as well as an interactive timeline and a gallery devoted to modern furniture and design.

California cool had a St. Louis connection with the creativity and optimism of Charles and Ray Eames, whose plywood chairs are shown here. Charles Eames studied architecture at WUSTL from 1925-27.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Los Angeles attracted artists and intellectuals from across the United States and, critically, from Europe. Many of these new arrivals, fleeing the impending war, brought with them tenets of international modernism and found employment and safe haven in Hollywood. The experimental German filmmaker Oskar Fischinger, for example, was recruited to Paramount and later worked at MGM and Disney studios, while the Hungarian-born Jules Engel helped launch the United Productions of America Studio, which pioneered the flat, graphic style of midcentury animation with cartoons such as “Gerald McBoing Boing” (1950).

By the ’50s, the Hollywood Hills were dotted with modernist residences by architects such as Pierre Koenig, John Lautner and Richard Neutra. Constructed largely of glass and steel, these light-filled homes — many commissioned by Art & Architecture’s Case Study House program — were open to the elements, with walls and ceilings that seemed to float in space. A similar sense of spatial instability informed the “hard edge” painting of Karl Benjamin, Helen Lundeberg, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley and John McLaughlin. These colorful geometric abstractions, with their ambiguity between flatness and depth, stood in sharp contrast to the gestural and emotive fervency of New York abstract expressionism.

Meanwhile the “cool jazz” of Davis, conceived in reaction to then-dominant bebop, helped define “cool” for a national and global audience and was an important influence on West Coast players such as Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, June Christy, Shelly Manne, Gerald Mulligan, Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins.

Portraits and album covers by photographer William Claxton captured the movement’s sense of effortless grace, just as architectural photographer Julius Shulman helped popularize the modernist home through carefully staged scenes of middle-class suburban couples living amidst high Hollywood style.

Perhaps no figures better exemplify the creativity and optimism of California cool than designers Charles and Ray Eames. Born and raised in St. Louis, Charles Eames studied architecture at the University from 1925-27 then later taught at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he met Sacramento native Ray Kaiser.

In 1941, the couple married and moved to Los Angeles, where they spent the next four decades reshaping American design. Their molded-plywood furniture, plastic chairs and iconic lounge — all showcased in the exhibition, along with rare film clips and other archival materials — joined pioneering technologies with a rigorous yet lighthearted sensibility, creating works that were innovative, affordable and accessible.

Special ‘cool’ events

In conjunction with “Birth of the Cool,” the Kemper museum will offer free afternoon jazz concerts on select Saturdays throughout the fall.

Also scheduled are a series of lectures beginning with Elizabeth Armstrong, Ph.D., chief curator for the Orange County Museum of Art Sept. 20. Other lectures are: Terry Smith, Ph.D., professor of contemporary art history and theory at the University of Pittsburgh (Oct. 13); and Thomas Crow, Ph.D., professor of modern art at New York University (Nov. 7).

Besides the lectures, Eric Mumford, Ph.D., associate professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and author of “Modern Architecture in St. Louis,” will lead a tour of area landmarks Oct. 5.

The museum also will present “Some Like It Cool,” a film series that will include screenings of “Rebel Without a Cause” (Dec. 9); “Anatomy of a Murder” (Dec. 10); and “North by Northwest” (Dec. 11).

“Birth of the Cool” opens with a reception at 7 p.m. Sept. 19 and remains on view through Jan. 5, 2009. Both the reception and exhibition are free and open to the public