Art Exhibit Review: American Cool at the National Portrait Gallery


sarah shelton

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After all the snow, class cancellations and the heart filled holiday, I took it upon myself to run way off campus to a much cooler place. I escaped to Chinatown where the National Portrait Gallery is putting famous photographs of famous people on display in the American Cool exhibit.

Within the American Cool exhibit are original photographs of individuals from America’s past and present that fit into the nation’s idea of “cool.” To be cool is to something new and unattainable. Including everyone from celebrity rock stars, such as Jimmy Hendrix and Kurt Cobain, to timeless prose writers like Earnest Hemingway, the photographs offer an interpretation of what the term “cool” really means and how it is applied to a wide variety of people.

Next to the welcoming purple neon sign that screamed American Cool are four definitions for the word cool. An original artistic vision carried out with a signature style, cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation, iconic power, or a recognized cultural legacy are all definitions, which the various photographs explain. For example, from the early twentieth century were artists such as Georgia O’Keefe and Duke Ellington and the current symbols of cool included Tony Hawk, Jay-Z, and Susan Sarandon. Diane Keaton has been recently buzzed about as a major snub of the exhibit; the epitome of cool with her menswear wardrobe and casual attitude, Keaton’s version of cool was not cool enough apparently.

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Off of the main hall where every inch of wall space is filled with images of timelessly cool Americans are a number of small rooms that display hundreds more. Despite the vast array of black and white photographs, and some color, the exhibit still manages to feel intimate in its cool grey blue walls. The photographs themselves are full of depth and allow the audience to sneak a glimpse into the soul of every subject. No two were alike, each and every print portraying an individualistic view point of “cool”.

Every moment spent inside the picture filled walls of the American Cool show were well spent indeed. The exhibit exemplified a more exact and accurate description of what it means to be cool rather than the stereotypical and vague definition, which was charming and refreshing. Cool does not necessarily mean having 1,000 friends on Facebook, but rather carving a path as a free spirit, allowing honest creativity to follow.

The exhibit is open from February 7, 2014 until September, and just like all of the Smithsonian Museums, there is no cost of entry.