What does it mean when a generation claims a certain figure as cool? What qualities does this person embody at that historical moment? “American Cool” explores these questions through photography, history, and popular culture. In this exhibition, cool is rendered visible, as shot by some of the finest art photographers of the past century. For the next few Fridays, we will post some of the subjects of American Cool, which stays open at the National Portrait Gallery though September 7, 2014.
As a singer-songwriter, director, composer, and impresario of world music, David Byrne has been described as the “thinking man’s rock star.” A shy art student, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he teamed up with his friends Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth to create the thoughtful, danceable industrial rock of the Talking Heads. Collaborating with Brian Eno, Byrne led the band’s evolution from venues like CBGB into studio-driven world music—first with Remain in Light(1980)—while also composing scores for Twyla Tharp, Robert Wilson, and Jonathan Demme. As Talking Heads concerts evolved into theatrical funk spectacles, Byrne became a nerd fashion icon in his oversize white suit, as captured in Stop Making Sense (1985). Byrne founded the world music record label Luaka Bop, and has more recently favored Latin American rhythms in his own compositions.
In a prolific yet short-lived career, Jean-Michel Basquiat became a leading figure in the 1980s art world. Having run away from home as a teenager, he supported himself initially by selling homemade postcards and sweatshirts on the street. He emerged as an underground celebrity in 1978, when he and a friend began spray-painting cryptic social messages and the tag SAMO (short for “Same Old Shit”) all over Lower Manhattan. Working in a graffiti style, he moved into producing artworks that combined expressively drawn elements like figures and skulls with incisive words and phrases. Soon he was exhibiting at major galleries and museums and collaborating with Andy Warhol. As a black man in a predominantly white art scene, he found himself increasingly caught between a desire for fame and a fear of being exploited by that world. Like his heroes Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix, Basquiat burned bright but died young of a drug overdose.