What does it mean to be cool? The National Portrait Gallery explores the word’s meaning and history in a new exhibition called “American Cool.”
The exhibit traces the changing definitions of cool from the “birth” of cool in the 1940s when the word became synonymous with anti-authoritarianism and rebellion. “American Cool” then traces back to the present where cool is associated with American characters that have captivated the American public for decades either through their television screens, radios or novels.
The words “American Cool” flash in blue neon light above a frenzied group of people, milling and crowding around various medium-sized portraits of familiar faces along the white-wash corridor of the second floor in the National Portrait Gallery. Attendees at the show ranged from very young to elderly: all generations could relate to at least some of the people featured in the exhibit.
Expect to see a plethora of hidden portraits of iconic figures from Muddy Waters, Elvis, Jack Nicholson and Kurt Cobain.
For the forgotten members of America’s cool gang, attendees could leave a suggestion in a comments book at the end of the exhibit, which provides an entertaining read: a lot of people asked why they themselves were not included in the exhibit. Samuel L. Jackson popped up a lot, too.
The photographs in the exhibit were taken by various much-loved artists such as Diane Arbus and Annie Leibovitz. Expect to see portraits of the famous stars and activists in a light never seen before, yet in a way that perfectly portrays what makes them cool and how they have inspired entire generations.
While the exhibit was not as extensive or interactive as one would have hoped, seeing portraits of favorite media icons provides a nice break from the monotony of hundreds of portraits of past presidents. Considering that access to the exhibit and the rest of the National Portrait Gallery is free, it’s on the to-do list in D.C. this month.
See the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery, near the Gallery Place/Chinatown metro stop on the Red Line. Entry is free. The exhibit runs from Feb. 7 – Sept. 7.