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Midcentury mod and all that jazz

OCMA's 'Birth of the Cool' showcases the art and architecture, style and song that swirled in SoCal's incubator of the 1950s.

October 07, 2007|Hugh Hart | Special to The Times

MUSIC, architecture and art melded in a picture-perfect Modernist moment in 1957 every time abstract painter Karl Benjamin went to work. In the studio of his custom-built post-and-beam ranch that hewed closely to the airy Case Study model mastered by Pierre Koenig and Richard Neutra, Benjamin would huddle over his canvases to create vivid geometric compositions while playing and replaying Miles Davis' records on the hi-fi.

"I think I wore out two copies of 'Birth of the Cool,' " Benjamin recalls. "Miles' music spoke to me, spoke to my attitude, my outlook. In visual arts, negative area -- the space between things -- is very important, and with Miles, the space between the notes took on new meaning. This restrained lyricism moved me deeply. Of course you're not thinking about it at the time, but the music and the painting coincided." At 81, Benjamin could be seen as the venerable poster boy for the Orange County Museum of Art's new show "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury." His sensibility is writ large in the exhibition, opening today, which celebrates the Modernist aesthetic as filtered through paintings (Benjamin's included), architecture, music, graphic design, decorative arts, furniture, film and animation produced by Southern California's creative community during the '50s.

Gathering more than 150 objects, "Cool" includes work from midcentury design polymaths Ray and Charles Eames as well as photographs by Julius Shulman, whose meticulous portraits of Case Study homes (built between 1945 and 1966 under the auspices of Arts & Architecture magazine) established Southern California as a breezy outpost of International Style.

But OCMA chief curator Elizabeth Armstrong wanted to cast her conceptual net beyond the scope of these familiar Modernists by illuminating connections among lesser-known pockets of activity tethered to the less-is-more aesthetic carried by European émigrés to Los Angeles during the '30s and '40s.

"Even with the stuff that is well-known, like Ray and Charles Eames -- people know about the chairs and there've certainly been a few shows about them -- but Elmer Bernstein composed jazz-related scores for a couple of their films which aren't that well known. We wanted to pull out and explore this part of California culture in a deeper way than what we usually get."

Armstrong sparked the idea for a multidisciplinary Modernist survey after looking at works by Benjamin, John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley. Grouped as "Four Abstract Classicists" in a 1959 LACMA exhibition, the artists were described at the time as "Easygoing, Bauhaus and Zen." Joined by Helen Lundeberg five years later in OCMA's "California Hard-Edge Painting" show, the painters' carefully poised compositions ran counter to New York's reigning school of angst-ridden Abstract Expressionism. "Compare John McLaughlin to Jackson Pollock and you really are at two ends of the Earth," Armstrong says.

"Benjamin really wasn't on my radar," Armstrong says. "But when I'd see these paintings by him, they looked like what artists today are painting. I was struck by how fresh they are, yet for the most part, these painters aren't even footnotes in art history books. I was also struck by the formal parallels between this very pure kind of painting and the Modernist architecture going on at the same time. The show is a way to do justice to these painters by seeing what else was going on at that time and exploring the context for their work."

Two and a half years ago, Armstrong convened scholars, designers, painters and architects for a brainstorming session at the John Lautner-designed rainbow-shaped Garcia House in the Hollywood Hills. There, she described her desire to produce an exhibition that would "do justice to these painters by seeing what else was going on at that time and exploring the context for their work."

Architect Fred Fisher, one of the exhibition's design consultants, found the idea compelling. "What interested me was the spontaneous cross-fertilization between all these disciplines," says Fisher, who works in a 1955 Santa Monica office building designed by Case Study participant A. Quincy Jones and lives in Crestwood Hills, a master-planned neighborhood completed by the Modernist architect in 1950.

"When I moved to Venice in 1971, it was this kind of accidental community of music, graphic design, architecture, fine art and progressive social ideas -- a microcosm for what Elizabeth is talking about for this earlier period."

To highlight the interplay between visual arts and the local jazz scene, Armstrong took her curatorial cue from essayist Dave Hickey, who focused on photographer Bill Claxton as a window into the unruffled "West Coast Sound" championed by Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Dave Brubeck and Art Pepper.

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