Books March 2008

California Cool

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

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 enor-mously 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.”

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

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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