The cool crowd

Bowdoin show aims to complicate story of postwar American art

Alex Katz's 1963 portrait of his wife, ''Ada Seated,'' captures the ease of postwar American Art. Alex Katz's 1963 portrait of his wife, ''Ada Seated,'' captures the ease of postwar American Art. (Vaga)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / April 24, 2009
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BRUNSWICK, Maine - "New York Cool" is the breezy but quietly provocative title of a survey of postwar American art culled from the collection of New York University. Currently installed in two lovely rooms at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, the show concentrates on the decade between 1955 and 1965, when New York saw a shift away from Abstract Expressionism toward Pop and Minimalism.

Or so the usual story goes. But by emphasizing the sheer eclecticism of the period, the show's curator, Pepe Karmel, suggests that this standard historical account is inadequate. Pitting canonized names (de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Stella, Frankenthaler, and Guston) against less obvious candidates (Norman Bluhm, James Lee Byars, Louise Nevelson, and Miriam Schapiro), Karmel tries to complicate our idea of what kind of painting mattered in those years.

In the process, he reminds us that, in any given period, there's more than one way for an artist to be cool.

To be "cool" - am I right? (I'm not someone you should trust on this) - is not to care, or at least to recognize the pointlessness of caring. But "cool" is a description of attitude, not essence, so it's often simply a matter of pretending not to care.

In Albert Camus's "The Outsider," did Meursault, the coolest guy in 20th century fiction, secretly care about his mother's death, despite his infamous failure to cry at her funeral? My guess is yes - just not in the way society expected him to.

Did Jackson Pollock, Marlon Brando, James Dean and all those other icons of postwar American cool really not give a damn? Their tragic biographies suggest in fact that they did - and often passionately. They just didn't want to show it. Why? Because making a big deal of things was, in the larger context of life's absurdity, uncool. It was frivolous. It was kitsch.

The Bowdoin College show is deeply enjoyable. But its argument is, inevitably, superficial. The works in it derive, after all, from a single collection (albeit a remarkably good one). Most artists are represented by just a work or two, and many of the artists who clearly matter to the historical record, and thus to the cogency of this kind of case, are absent - people like Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jackson Pollock.

But the title is worth dwelling on, because the whole idea of cool was dramatically shifting in these years.

One minute Pollock and de Kooning - hard-drinking, heroic existentialists who turned their canvases, as the critic Harold Rosenberg had it, into arenas of authentic action and fervent self-expression - were the epitome of cool.

The next (so we're generally led to believe) people seemed to recoil in disgust from such attitudes. Almost any kind of expressionism became uncool. Instead, irony, and a new kind of detached empiricism took hold in the forms of Pop, Minimalism, and hard-edged abstraction.

What really happened?

The first critic to talk about "The New Cool-Art" was Irving Sandler in 1965. Sandler observed that, in contrast to de Kooning and Pollock, for whom every swipe of the brush or flick of the artist's wrist supposedly expressed the artist's authentic self, Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein "cover[ed] up their tracks . . . instead of exposing the ragged marks of their process."

"I think somebody should be able to do my paintings for me," quipped Warhol, who then went ahead and made the necessary arrangements. Stella and Judd, too, embraced impersonality. They chose pristine ideas over the messiness of poetic expression; a machine-made aesthetic over paint slopped on canvas.

All these artists seemed to sense the futility of caring so much. They were unpersuaded by the whole idea of authenticity. And, like put-upon sons, they needed to beat their powerful fathers into submission. So they chose a new kind of ironically aware "cool" - what Karmel describes as a "form of a make-believe impersonality."

All this is fine as far as it goes. But Karmel wants to make us see that art history does not always conform to such clear-cut Oedipal scripts, and that in fact, a whole lot more was going on during that exciting and eclectic period of transition.

Louise Bourgeois, for instance, was making her totemic, phallic sculptures, such as the "Labyrinthine Tower" included here. Cast iron, the work draws on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, a favorite of 1930s Surrealists bent on excavating a darker, irrational side of the West's classical inheritance. It also calls to mind Brueghel's "Tower of Babel."

Far from being impersonal and affectless, "Labyrinthine Tower" harnesses surrealism, sex, gender politics, allegory, and classical myth - but all without breaking a sweat.

Bourgeois, as we know from the famous photograph of her by Robert Mapplethorpe, can be devastatingly cool. But does she care? Obsessively. Hysterically. Utterly.

Then there was Philip Pearlstein - another complicating case. Rejecting the idea that figurative art was hopelessly old-fashioned, Pearlstein enrolled in life drawing classes in 1958. Five years later, he began exhibiting pictures of naked models lounging about in the studio.

Simpler and less taut than his later work, "Two Models on Studio Floor" has a washed-out feeling, an ennui, that makes its careful attention to the contours and textures of flesh feel creepily off-kilter. Pearlstein talked about depicting naked bodies in "a cold, objective, almost clinical way" so as to set up pictorial tensions. "I call it suppressed hysteria," he said.

Cool, Pearlstein reminds us, can have a lot of latent heat in it.

The show also includes a set of wonderful collaborations between the painter Norman Bluhm and the poet, critic, and curator Frank O'Hara. Collaborations tend not to be cool, if only because cool presupposes the prerogatives of radical individuality.

Here, however, the shared insouciance of both painter and poet eclipses any suggestion of compromise. Bluhm's splatters and drips combine with O'Hara's erotic, whim-revering poetry, anticipating the later work of Cy Twombly (another artist missing from the roll call here).

The series feels freighted with the potential bliss of the casual encounter, and harks back to a 19th century idea of cool, exemplified by Manet and Baudelaire, but here with a very mid-century, homoerotic twist. "Meet me in the park," writes O'Hara above one explosive splatter. "If you love me," he appends below.

Yet one more possible definition of cool relates to how we relate to our own good fortune. The photographer Sally Mann summed it up beautifully when she wrote: "Nothing is so seductive as a gift casually possessed."

Love is just such a gift. And Alex Katz takes the seductiveness of love casually possessed to a wholly adorable level in a portrait of his wife, Ada, seated in a folding lawn chair. The green lawn, which takes up most of the canvas, has an unlikely underlay of warm acid yellow, which hums against the cool, minty green of Ada's skirt. Everything about the picture expresses ease.

Of course, some of the more obscure artists here were not necessarily written out of art history by accident. And despite all the welcome complication this exhibition admits, the simple, Oedipal version of the shift from Abstract Expressionism to Pop and Minimalism in the '50s and '60s continues to carry weight.

Certainly, a lot of what happened in those years bears it out. Robert Rauschenberg did, for instance, ask de Kooning for a drawing that he proceeded to rub out and exhibit as "Erased de Kooning Drawing" - an Oedipal event if ever there was one. (Both artists are represented by strong, if small, works in this show).

So we needn't abandon the old story line altogether. But by recognizing the partiality and shortcomings of art history's simplifications, we often stumble upon new things to love (from this show, I personally nominate the Zen-inflected works of James Lee Byars). That's pretty cool. Just don't let on that you care.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at


NEW YORK COOL: Painting and Sculpture From the NYU Art Collection Through July 19. Bowdoin

College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine. 207-725-3275. art-museum