American Cool

February 7, 2014 – September 7, 2014

Image: Deborah Harry, 1978 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. Used by permission.

National Portrait Gallery
8th and G Streets, NW
Washington, DC

2nd Floor North

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What do we mean when we say someone is cool? Cool is a supreme compliment that evokes people who exude rebellious self-expression, charisma, edge, and mystery. It 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. Cool has been embodied in such jazz musicians as Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and Dizzy Gillespie; in such actors as Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and Steve McQueen; in such rock and rollers as Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and Patti Smith; and in many others 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.

Related book: American Cool , Joel Dinerstein and Frank H. Goodyear III (Delmonico Books/Prestel for the National Portrait Gallery, 2014)