If you’re a denizen of the Bay Area or will be in town before August 17, I’d highly recommend the Oakland Museum of California’s current exhibit, Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury. I’ve always been a huge fan of mid-century modern and the international style movement from which it sprang, and rarely does one have a chance to see examples of the art, architecture, design, music, photography and animation from the period displayed together.
There are a couple of things I find compelling about this show. For instance, it’s not just about the pieces themselves, but about their interplay; Southern California’s modernists constituted a community riffing from a similar aesthetic and outlook, but the richness of the expression drew from their myriad backgrounds–European émigrés, eastern American jazz musicians, SoCal locals. This mix of perspectives gives the work depth and character, making this show more an experience than a retrospective.
How the works are represented–not only the pieces themselves, but the photography that accompanies them–is equally impressive. Julius Shulman’s images “were purveyors of West Coast cool, offering glimpses inside modern glass houses where carefully staged, elegant middle-class couples act out the suburban American dream of home ownership with Hollywood sophistication.” In other words, the photos are about presenting the work, but also imbuing it with an added layer of story and meaning.
And then there’s the part I find most intriguing: it could be nothing more than my predilection for the period, but I’ve always felt it was overshadowed by the cultural revolutions of the Sixties–and not just those in America. As a result of that subsequent era, the impact of mid-century modern is frequently overlooked, though its persistence is remarkable. From Dwell to Disney and from Hollywood to Hip-Hop, it’s influence remains strong, even if it lives just below the surface of our collective consciousness.
I wish I could show some examples of the work, but copyright law in this area is prickly at best. Besides, I think exhibitions should be experienced first-hand.