Ah, the good old USA. Land of the free and home of the cool.
âThe coolest people live in America,â says Joel Dinerstein, co-curator of âAmerican Cool,â a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery that celebrates 100 specimens of coolness. âThe idea of âcoolâ is central to the American self-concept. It embodies a characteristically American maverick individuality.â
âAnd pushing the boundaries of expression is a hallmark of U.S. democracy,â says Frank H. Goodyear III, the exhibitionâs other curator.
âCoolâ as we know it entered the American lexicon through African-American jazz musicians in the 1920s. Legend has it tenor saxophonist Lester Young popularized the word, throwing it around while playing shows. Later adopted by the mostly white members of the Beat Generation, the term eventually spread around the world. Today, if you say âcoolâ in almost any country, the locals will get what you mean.
Of course, not all people are created cool. Having studied the sociological history and meaning of âcoolâ since they were grad students at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s, Dinerstein and Goodyear devised a rubric of four âcoolâ characteristics, at least three of which must be met for a person to qualify. The co-curators looked for these attributes when picking subjects for their show: 1. An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style; 2. The embodiment of cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation; 3. Iconic power, or instant visual recognition; and 4. A recognized cultural legacy.
Featuring photography by such masters as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Annie Leibovitz, âAmerican Coolâ presents portraits of the 100 people who best embody this truly American concept (a handful of whom were âcoolâ even before it was cool). Here are 10 standouts.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
By Samuel Hollyer, circa 1855
The father of free verse championed aÂ radical new style of writing while challenging the prudishness of 19th-century society. The poetâs contemporaries were shocked and appalled by his non-rhyming verses, which audaciously explored âobsceneâ themes, including sexuality andÂ homoeroticism.
Coolest Contribution: âLeaves of Grass,â 1855.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
By Bob Willoughby, 1951 (Printed 1991)
A friend of Lester Youngâs, Lady Day often headlined at jazz shows but she still had to enter white clubs through the back door. Holidayâs heart-wrenching rendition of âStrange Fruitâ exposed American racism like nothing else could: âSouthern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.â
Coolest Contribution: âLady Sings the Blues,â 1956.
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
By Unknown, 1856
Douglass fearlessly set out to prove that black slaves were as intelligent as their white masters and deserved to be recognized as independent human beings and American citizens. An escaped slave himself, the great orator fought for the equality of all people, regardless of race, gender or national origin.
Coolest Contribution:Â âNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,â 1845.
James Dean (1931-1955)
By Roy Schatt, 1954
While Dinerstein and Goodyear were conducting preliminary interviews with anyone and everyone on the topic of âcool,â James Dean was one of two people who always came up first (Miles Davis was the other). A poster boy for disenfranchised youth, Dean literally lived life in the fast lane while breaking down boundaries in acting and sexuality.
Coolest Contribution: âRebel Without a Cause,â 1955, one of only three feature films Dean made.
Miles Davis (1926-1991)
By Aram Avakian, 1955 (printed 2012)
Davis, whose 1957 album is even called âBirth of the Cool,â was most famous for pioneering a clear, vibrato-less tone on trumpet and being on the forefront of a handful of new jazz styles, most notably âcool jazz.â
Coolest Contribution: A tie between âKind of Blue,â 1959, and âBitches Brew,â 1970.
Elvis Presley (1935-1977)
By Roger Marshutz, 1956
Even the coolest of the cool bow down to Elvis. John Lennon considered the King such a huge influence that he liked to say, âBefore Elvis, there was nothing.â Fellow âAmerican Coolâ subject Bob Dylanâs view: âWhen I first heard Elvisâ voice, I just knew that I wasnât going to work for anybody, and nobody was going to be my boss. Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.â Need we say more?
Coolest Contribution: âElvis Presley,â 1956 (coolest album) and âJailhouse Rock,â 1957 (coolest song and movie).
Jimi HendrixÂ (1942-1970)
By Linda McCartney, 1967
Hendrix, whose face graces the cover of the âAmerican Coolâ exhibition catalog, redefined the art of guitar playing â and even the sound of our national anthem. But his untimely death exposed a darker side of cool, a mysterious complexity that sometimes ends in tragedy for huge talents who donât quite fit in. âBeing âcoolâ is often a strategy for navigating through a challenging society. Itâs how you deal with the s— in life,â co-curator Joel Dinerstein says. âââCoolâ is not [about being] heroic.â
Coolest Contribution: âAre You Experienced,â 1967.
Joan Didion (1934- )
By Julian Wasser, 1970
A firm believer in the sociocultural power of the media and a champion of literary journalism, Didion mapped new territory for writers. Using methods usually confined to fiction writing, she uncovered the ugliness behind the American Dream.
Coolest Contribution: âSlouching Towards Bethlehem,â 1968.
Jean-Michel BasquiatÂ (1960-1988)
By Dmitri Kasterine, 1986
Often cited as one of the first true street artists, this Haitian-American Brooklynite helped usher graffiti (previously attributed to thugs and juvenile delinquents) into the art world. Basquiat would paint his signature three-pronged crown on his canvases and tag it on walls. To this day, street artists pay homage to their forefather by painting Basquiatâs crown into their own works.
Coolest Contribution: Tags that used to cover the walls and subway cars of New York City.
Benicio del Toro (1967- )
By Cass Bird, 2008
This Puerto Rican-born actor oozes cool, with his rugged masculinity, secretive private life and unwavering devotion to his art. In preparation for his 1998 role as Dr. Gonzo in âFear and Loathing in Las Vegas,â Del Toro gained about 40 pounds and completely altered his speech. He so believably portrayed the maniacal Samoan attorney that it took the actor a while to get back to being offered ânormalâ roles.
Coolest Contribution: âTraffic,â 2000.
National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets NW;Â Fri. through Sept. 7, free; 202-633-8300.Â (Gallery Place)Â