Mar 31, 2008

California Cool

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Books March 2008 Atlantic Monthly

Editor’s Choice: When postwar modernism went west, it dropped the angst—and transformed a culture.

by Benjamin Schwarz

Benjamin Schwarz is The Atlantic’s literary editor and national editor.

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.