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Birth of the Cool

June 9, 2008

Visiting Oakland Museum of California isn't like visiting other major museums in the Bay Area like the de Young and SFMOMA. Oakland doesn't attract much of a tourist contingent, so on any given day, the museum's visitors are locals. This creates a very different dynamic as many of the people who visit the museum not only seem to hold a powerful affection for the place like it's home, but also run into each other in the corridors, galleries and sculpture gardens and say hi or stop to chat.

This sensation was powerful when I last visited the museum on Friday evening. I went both to check out the Birth of the Cool exhibition which recently opened in the institution's art galleries (and runs until August 17) and the latest of the "First Friday" soirees, which the museum runs on the first Friday of each month from 5 - 9pm.

I thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the venue. The Birth of the Cool exhibition, which riffed on 1950s Californian art, design and culture and its incluence on American and global style, was quite a relief after having sat through the new Indiana Jones flick the night before. The canned mid-20th century kitsch of the film with its cheesy references to James Dean and soda fountains pale in comparison to Oakland Museum's mellow-fresh insights into life 60 years ago.

Some of the items in the exhibition seem obvious. What would a retrospective of the period's cultural influences be without a major section devoted to the design and films of Charles and Ray Eames, or the jazz of the exhibition's namesake, Miles Davis. Needless to say, the galleries were packed with Eames chairs and William Claxton's iconic images of jazz musicians.

But my own favorite part of the exhibition revolved around the starkly beautiful images of architectural photographer Julius Shulman. Shulman's photographs of modernist houses set against stagering southern Californian desert and mountain backdrops are engrossing because they look like still-life paintings and yet feel larger than life. Shulman believed in putting people in his pictures of buildings to make the structures look lived in. He succeeds in this aim, yet the well-dressed couples that occupy his frames are so mannequin-like that they almost seem alien. The effect is powerful.

Another delight of Birth of the Cool is the film footage of Hugh Hefner's television series from the period, Playboy's Penthouse. Watching Hef chatting with Lenny Bruce about on-screen drinking while smoking a pipe reminds me that even mainstream American culture wasn't as straight-laced as I generally thought.

Like Hef, the people of Oakland know how to let their hair down. The First Friday event swirled around me as I walked through the museum. A jazz band played upbeat swing tunes in the packed museum cafe. People of all ages, sexes and ethnic backgrounds hit the dance floor with abandon. Others lounged about, chatting, eating and drinking. The sculpture gardens were busy with people sipping wine and gazing out at the gorgeous sunset across Lake Merritt below.

Oakland is experiencing something of a "rebirth of the cool" these days, a feeling underscored by my evening at the museum.

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