California celebrates Modernist roots with three new exhibits

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – High modernism may have been born in Berlin but it flowered in Southern California. Now, merely 50 years after it peaked – and with many of its innovators alive to see it happen – modernism is the gold standard of a design-obsessed generation. So it’s not surprising that three Los Angeles area institutions are celebrating the renewal of interest with upcoming shows.

Hammersley Opposing.jpgExhibitions at the Los Angeles Public Library and the Palm Springs Museum are built around the photographs of Julius Shulman. The third exhibition maps the impact of modernism on California’s pop culture, circa 1959.

Entitled The Birth of Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury, the show evolved from Chief Curator Elizabeth Armstrong’s interest in a group of mid-century hard-edged painters that showed together as the Abstract Classicists.

“The paintings of the Abstract Classicists have a certain affinity with California’s modernist architecture,” Armstrong explained. “It is undeniable when you compare them to Shulman’s photographs of the Case Study Houses.”

That connection led Armstrong to meet with a panel of advisors from film, graphic design, music and culture to examine modernist experimentation across the disciplines. They discovered that, clearly, there had been a cross pollination of ideas. Inspired by the pre-war European exodus of architects and designers and fostered by a generation of relocating GI Bill recipients, the aspects of modernism had came together at mid-century.

Benjamin Totem Group.jpgUsing Shulman’s photographs of the architectural achievements of Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Rudolf Schindler and others, the tracks the influence of Art & Architecture magazine on the artistic community. With articles on architecture, photography, music, and visual arts, the publication served as a clearinghouse for ideas during the movement’s formative years. When the magazine undertook the Case Study House project, commissioning renowned architects to design homes, it laid a foundation of reference for ensuing public projects.

Working with newly developed materials such as molded plywood, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, bent and welded wire mesh and cast aluminum, brothers Charles and Ray Eames’ created designs for the office and home that linked the intellectualism of modernism with the needs of the middle class.

Surrounded by light-filled houses and sleek designs, painters found inspiration. Seen collectively, the works of Helen Lundeberg, Karl Benjamin, Lorser Feitelson, Frederick Hammersley, and John McLaughlin embody a similar reductive and restrained sensibility.

When the five were shown together in 1959 as the Abstract Classicists, the art press described their paintings as “easygoing, Bauhaus, and Zen.” The painters enjoyed enough success to have their paintings acquired by leading museums and private collectors. The Birth of Cool brings their work back into the public eye after many years of having been known as a “collector’s best kept secret.”

Meanwhile, Hollywood was examining the effect of the dichotomy that occurred at mid-century between an accepting Middle America (AKA the squares) and the hipsters (AKA cool cats). TV mined the contrast with the popular show Dobbie Gillis. Since it always allowed the clean-cut character to outwit the charming beatnik sidekick, America was comfortable laughing along. But, when Hugh Hefner went on the air with Playboy Penthouse, hosting elegantly clad, cigarette smoking, cocktail swirling guests, the integration of talent and lifestyle was over the top for many. The show created so much controversy that some states banned it.

However, one thing Hef’s show did manage to do, was promote jazz. But even this had an East Coast/West Coast component. The East Coast responded to the plaintive and compelling riffs of Miles Davis. Musicians on the West Coast, as musicologist Ted Goia described, infused their music with “a cooler demeanor…cleanly articulated.” The Birth of Cool defines this difference with musical selections by Chet Baker, Art Pepper and others. William Claxton’s photos capture the style and attitude of California’s laid back jazz scene.

The Birth of Cool opens on Oct. 7 and runs through Jan. 6, 2006.

Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles, opening at the Los Angeles Public Library on October 6 and running through January 20, 2008, features several photographic exhibits documenting the development of Los Angeles. From the urban developments of Bunker Hill and Century City to the Watts Towers and Grauman’s Chinese Theater through the growth of Wilshire Boulevard and the industrial engines at the Port of LA and LAX, the images capture the city’s kinetic force. The exhibition coincides with October’s ArchiFest II, a month long celebration of Los Angeles architecture.

On February 15, 2008, the Palm Springs Art Museum will debut an exhibition of approximately 150 Shulman images of architecture in the Palm Springs area. In conjunction with the event, Rizzoli will release the Julius Shulman Palm Springs book.

For more information on The Birth of Cool, visit For Julius Shulman’s Los Angeles, visit and