Midcentury mod and all that jazz

Special to The Times

MUSIC, architecture and art melded in a picture-perfect Modernist moment in 1957 every time abstract painter Karl Benjamin went to work. In the studio of his custom-built post-and-beam ranch that hewed closely to the airy Case Study model mastered by Pierre Koenig and Richard Neutra, Benjamin would huddle over his canvases to create vivid geometric compositions while playing and replaying Miles Davis' records on the hi-fi.

"I think I wore out two copies of 'Birth of the Cool,' " Benjamin recalls. "Miles' music spoke to me, spoke to my attitude, my outlook. In visual arts, negative area -- the space between things -- is very important, and with Miles, the space between the notes took on new meaning. This restrained lyricism moved me deeply. Of course you're not thinking about it at the time, but the music and the painting coincided." At 81, Benjamin could be seen as the venerable poster boy for the Orange County Museum of Art's new show "Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury." His sensibility is writ large in the exhibition, opening today, which celebrates the Modernist aesthetic as filtered through paintings (Benjamin's included), architecture, music, graphic design, decorative arts, furniture, film and animation produced by Southern California's creative community during the '50s.

Gathering more than 150 objects, "Cool" includes work from midcentury design polymaths Ray and Charles Eames as well as photographs by Julius Shulman, whose meticulous portraits of Case Study homes (built between 1945 and 1966 under the auspices of Arts & Architecture magazine) established Southern California as a breezy outpost of International Style.

But OCMA chief curator Elizabeth Armstrong wanted to cast her conceptual net beyond the scope of these familiar Modernists by illuminating connections among lesser-known pockets of activity tethered to the less-is-more aesthetic carried by European émigrés to Los Angeles during the '30s and '40s.

"Even with the stuff that is well-known, like Ray and Charles Eames -- people know about the chairs and there've certainly been a few shows about them -- but Elmer Bernstein composed jazz-related scores for a couple of their films which aren't that well known. We wanted to pull out and explore this part of California culture in a deeper way than what we usually get."

Armstrong sparked the idea for a multidisciplinary Modernist survey after looking at works by Benjamin, John McLaughlin, Lorser Feitelson and Frederick Hammersley. Grouped as "Four Abstract Classicists" in a 1959 LACMA exhibition, the artists were described at the time as "Easygoing, Bauhaus and Zen." Joined by Helen Lundeberg five years later in OCMA's "California Hard-Edge Painting" show, the painters' carefully poised compositions ran counter to New York's reigning school of angst-ridden Abstract Expressionism. "Compare John McLaughlin to Jackson Pollock and you really are at two ends of the Earth," Armstrong says.

"Benjamin really wasn't on my radar," Armstrong says. "But when I'd see these paintings by him, they looked like what artists today are painting. I was struck by how fresh they are, yet for the most part, these painters aren't even footnotes in art history books. I was also struck by the formal parallels between this very pure kind of painting and the Modernist architecture going on at the same time. The show is a way to do justice to these painters by seeing what else was going on at that time and exploring the context for their work."

Two and a half years ago, Armstrong convened scholars, designers, painters and architects for a brainstorming session at the John Lautner-designed rainbow-shaped Garcia House in the Hollywood Hills. There, she described her desire to produce an exhibition that would "do justice to these painters by seeing what else was going on at that time and exploring the context for their work."

Architect Fred Fisher, one of the exhibition's design consultants, found the idea compelling. "What interested me was the spontaneous cross-fertilization between all these disciplines," says Fisher, who works in a 1955 Santa Monica office building designed by Case Study participant A. Quincy Jones and lives in Crestwood Hills, a master-planned neighborhood completed by the Modernist architect in 1950.

"When I moved to Venice in 1971, it was this kind of accidental community of music, graphic design, architecture, fine art and progressive social ideas -- a microcosm for what Elizabeth is talking about for this earlier period."

To highlight the interplay between visual arts and the local jazz scene, Armstrong took her curatorial cue from essayist Dave Hickey, who focused on photographer Bill Claxton as a window into the unruffled "West Coast Sound" championed by Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, Dave Brubeck and Art Pepper.

"It's unusual that you would have a whole period of American jazz represented by photographs instead of writing," Hickey notes, but there were no dominant critics in L.A. at the time. If you want to know about jazz in Los Angeles, you look at Bill's photographs. He captured it profoundly as this sotto voce kind of wordless music."

In one emblematic series, Claxton chronicles an East-meets-West jam session in North Hollywood. Armstrong says, "All the California musicians are wearing bathing suits and shorts, while the East Coast guys are still wearing their suits. East Coast jazz was so interior, smoky, intense, where as Bill liked to shoot the musicians outside."

Claxton, who also designed album covers, was one of many L.A. artists with an affinity for the music's laid-back charm. "Jazz musicians might not have known about the graphic designers, but the designers certainly knew about jazz," says Lorraine Wild, who designed the "Birth of the Cool" catalog. "They understood and interpreted the music as part of their ideal. And everybody was looking at the same stuff, so there was a great deal of synchronicity.

"It's been fascinating to parse out the way that Modernism flourished in Southern California and became this local variant that wasn't really beholden to its origins in Europe."

Flowing through time

In her catalog essay "Formal, Cool, Dense: Graphic Design in Los Angeles at Midcentury," Wild defines "Cool" as "detached but smart, imaginative but not over-worked." Those values were in evidence on a recent afternoon at OCMA in Newport Beach as Armstrong huddled with collector Michael Boyd to fine-tune the placement of his vintage furnishings. Pointing to an assortment of the Eames' classic molded-plywood chairs that appear to float, three high and five across, perched on a grid of tastefully muted square panes, Boyd says, "As we installed this stuff, we noticed that all these pieces are such open forms that you can see through them. There's a transparency to this work, so to convey that idea in the way we display them, we had to go for maximum airiness."

The exhibition is laid out in straightforward fashion, with separate galleries devoted to decorative arts, paintings and jazz, plus an entry space that includes paintings and iconic Shulman photographs.

"I was trying to find an elegant way to completely intersperse all the disciplines and the timeline material," Armstrong says. She had considered a more theatrical approach for the exhibition by re-creating, for example, a 1950s-era recording studio. "But at one of our earliest meetings, the design consultants urged me to keep the different areas separate."

Ultimately she opted for the approach articulated by architect Fisher. "You want to use the most minimal means to connect the space with the material that you're putting in it."

Walking through the galleries, Armstrong points out understated period touches. Midcentury furnishings are arrayed on a cork platform in homage to the flooring material favored by architect Neutra and featured in the Eames' own home. Reproductions of Eero Saarinen's classic molded-fiberglass chairs offer jazz lounge visitors a resting place for listening to vintage jazz amid Claxton photos and a wall of album covers.

Even with the viewing areas segregated by subject, connections abound. In an adjoining gallery a few feet from the Eames' "surfboard" coffee table sits Benjamin's 1957 "Black Pillars," featuring oblong shapes that echo the designers' low-to-the-ground ovoid table. In the jazz lounge, muted yellow, red and blue vertical rectangles superimposed on a "Chet Baker Sings" album cover mirror Feitelson's 1954 painting "Magical Space Forms: Stripes" propped against a nearby wall.

As an Eames short film flickers silently on the gallery wall behind her, Armstrong pauses in her afternoon rounds to take it all in. "What's most important about the show," she says, "is that we're revisiting this period as broadly as we can within a sensibility. Hopefully, we really capture the zeitgeist of this period in postwar America where you had, I think, this sense of overall confidence. If you look at the art of the moment, pretty much every serious artist is dealing with global chaos and huge political and environmental issues. It's such a different world now, but the appealing parts of it, the design parts for sure, still pull us in."

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'Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design, and Culture at Midcentury'

Where: Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach

When: Through Jan. 6

Price: $8 to $10; children 11 and under and OCMA members, free.

Contact: (949) 759-1122 or www.ocma.net

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