EDITOR’S CHOICE: WHEN POSTWAR MODERNISM WENT WEST, IT DROPPED THE ANGST—AND TRANSFORMED A CULTURE
March 2008 ATLANTIC
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, a small group of painters in Southern California made the region an internationally prominent modern-art center and defined an “L.A. Look” recognizable to this day; Los Angeles’s architects produced the most influential and winning collection of modernist houses ever built; its designers created America’s most seminal and enduring modern furniture designs; and its musicians mounted the only significant challenge to New York’s jazz supremacy in the past 60 years. A number of penetrating books—Peter Plagens’s Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast, 1945–1970; Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies; Pat Kirkhams’s Charles and Ray Eames: Designers of the Twentieth Century; Elizabeth Smith’s Blueprints for Modern Living: History and Legacy of the Case Study Houses; and Ted Gioia’s West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945–1960—have probed discrete aspects of this remarkable cultural flowering. But the first to connect the various artistic forms that modernism took in the region is the unusually intelligent and lavishly illustrated Birth of the Cool, by Elizabeth Armstrong, with essays by six prominent art critics (the eponymous art exhibition is currently touring the country). More important, the book provocatively suggests that a common sensibility animated all those forms. It thereby illuminates the substance of style—that is, how an aesthetic both shapes and is shaped by viewpoint and temperament, proclivities and prejudices.
Nearly every aspect of this sudden efflorescence can be traced to long- developing regional trends and affections, or was at the least firmly anchored in Southern California’s eccentric economic, social, climatological, and even technological environment. For instance, Southern California produced little noteworthy modern art before the austere, crisply defined “Hard-Edge” geometric paintings, with their uninflected colors, that Lorser Feitelson, John McLaughlin, Frederick Hammersley, Karl Benjamin, Helen Lundeberg, and June Harwood created beginning in the early 1950s. And when it did, those works were uniquely tied to Southern California conditions. The paintings were in part inspired by the pure, clean lines of Los Angeles’s Case Study houses and the city’s other modernist dwellings. (Appropriately enough, Birth of the Cool devotes one full essay and a significant part of another to these houses, and their images are reproduced throughout the book.) The region’s strong, clear light, which at once sharpens and idealizes forms and creates uncannily crisp shadows, was undoubtedly the essential factor in the development of the Hard-Edge style (though, surprisingly,Birth of the Cool fails to note it).
Similarly, the elegant yet sprightly, pavilion-like glass-and-steel Case Study houses, designed for Los Angeles’s swelling postwar professional middle class, could only be realized with new techniques and materials, many of which had emerged from the region’s war industries. As Elizabeth Smith notes in an essay in this book, “technologically oriented” Southern California proved unusually receptive to residential applications of those innovative industrial methods and materials, which were easily available in the region. Furthermore (as I’ve pointed out in these pages), the houses’ interweaving of outdoor and indoor space and their breezy informality put them in the tradition of a uniquely Californian way of living and domestic architecture going back to Schindler and Neutra’s modernist L.A. houses of the 1920s–’40s and, earlier, the stripped-down Craftsman bungalows of the 1910s and ’20s.
And, for that matter, the low-key, untroubled fluency of the California cool jazz of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, Buddy Collette, Shelly Manne, Bill Holman, and Bud Shank clearly grew out of West Coast musicians’ peculiar historical affinity for the easy swing of the Count Basie Orchestra. The music’s even-tempered, insouciant approach owed a lot to the sunny city in which the musicians found themselves, just as the relatively easy life that 1950s Los Angeles offered to musicians, composers, and arrangers (the steady work from movie and recording studios obviated incessant touring) gave rise to the music’s characteristically polished, heavily arranged, cerebral quality.
Moreover, even if the innovative designs of the high-minded and enormously successful Venice, California–based husband-and-wife partnership of Charles and Ray Eames, whose hugely influential work figures in nearly every essay in this book, might seem to lie outside a Los Angeles context and tradition (the region had never before had designers of mass-produced, avant-garde furniture), the couple’s creations in fact depended on new lightweight materials and inventive ways of fusing them—materials that would have been impossible to develop outside of Southern California, home of leading-edge military and aeronautical industries. It was to fashion leg splints for the U.S. Navy during World War II that the Eameses had initially developed the plywood-molding system that allowed for the production of their DCM chair—a piece of furniture the British architectural historian Reyner Banham has declared no less than “the most compelling artefact of its generation.” The couple invested the astringencies of modernism with the whimsy, playfulness, and love of juxtaposition that had long been attributes of the Southern California good life—see, for instance, their Case Study house, with its child’s-play panels of bright color and its marriage of warmly natural and austerely industrial materials—reflecting what Armstrong in her essay nicely characterizes as the region’s “ideal of informal domesticity.”
Birth of the Cool proposes that the connections and commonalities among California’s mid-century modernist musicians, architects, and painters include a collective sensibility—“cool,” an emphasis on restraint and detachment— that was rooted in but hardly confined to aesthetics. Nearly every aspect of California modernism developed in rebellion—not against the usual anti-modernism but against other manifestations of modernism, East Coast or European, that emphasized the heroic and the emotionally expressive. Hard-Edge painting (originally dubbed “Abstract Classicism”) elevated calculation, a Zen-influenced harmony, and formal austerity (qualities that didn’t exclude, especially in Lundeberg’s work, the lyrical) explicitly in opposition to the overheated romanticism and gestural and emotional fervency of Abstract Expressionism, specifically Pollock’s action painting. The work of the Hard-Edge painters, their first collective exhibition catalog in 1959 asserted, “runs counter to a widespread contemporary belief in the primary value of emotion and intuition in esthetic experience … the [Hard-Edge painter] is not preoccupied with art as an opportunity to make autobiographical statements. He is not a narcissist in paint, nor does he turn to art for the succor of the confessional.”
In the same vein, even as the Case Study architects purified the International Style, they also feminized and downscaled it (seldom have great architects lavished such attention nearly exclusively on the small single-family house) with their jaunty touch, and eschewed what Banham called “that heroic-style creative angst of the European-based modern movement.” This permitted a quality incompatible with passion, artistic and otherwise: wit. Along with their photographer of choice, Julius Shulman—whose photographs capture “the essence of ‘cool,’” Smith says, and who was one of the very rare photographers who put people in architectural shots—the Case Study architects imbued the married partners at the heart of domesticity with an arch, slightly quizzical, offhandedly erotic underplay that modulated and refined family life and bourgeois sexuality. (With its severe geometries and saturated colors, Shulman’s photo of Pierre Koenig and a model in his Case Study House #21 seems plainly influenced by Hard-Edge painting.) Finally, in both its architects’ and designers’ focus on the domestic—that is, the private and the sheltered—California modernism fostered a detachment, even a quietism, that in itself militated against zeal and emotional heedlessness.
Similarly, what the critic Whitney Balliet called the “pervasive suavity” of West Coast jazz—an understated and cleanly articulated playing that stayed close to the melody, tempered improvisation with control, and shunned blatant virtuosity—developed in response to the raw expression, the ostentatious and athletic displays (along with squawks and jagged accents) that characterized the increasing excesses of bop and hard bop, the dominant jazz styles back east. Cool jazz, especially its vocalists, injected the music with nonchalance and a sense of irony—qualities wholly absent from the jazz mainstream. The L.A.–based singers June Christy (the well-scrubbed former canary of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, the only great Los Angeles big band), Peggy Lee (onstage, she didn’t emote; she arched an eyebrow), and Frank Sinatra (especially on his up-tempo numbers, which convey the sense that romance is a lovely, transitory lark), all of whom recorded for Los Angeles’s trend-setting Capitol Records, interpreted lyrics with a resigned intelligence and a refined detachment. Listen to Christy’s signature “Something Cool,” about a tawdry lounge pickup, told from the perspective of the self-deluded female barfly: such knowingness entirely eluded the fervent (and earnest) Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Nina Simone.
Birth of the Cool evokes a profoundly distant period in American popular culture, aesthetics, style, and sensibility— and not only because it assesses the artifacts of a time and place of singular ebullience and prosperity. Postwar cool yielded to the ’60s, the most engaged, committed, and overwrought decade in our cultural history, a decade whose romantic excesses still haunt us. To be sure, a “cool” aesthetic could lapse easily into the commercially slick; witness the career of the West Coast jazzman Henry Mancini. But self-awareness, to say nothing of good manners and a sense of proportion, aesthetic and otherwise, demands a healthy measure of the cool. After all, as that consummate bard of cool Joan Didion once remarked, it’s impossible to maintain “any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.”