1986 jean michel basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1986

American Cool, an exhibit that features the “100 coolest Americans” throughout history in photos chosen by curators for the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, is an attempt to catalog one of those ineffable qualities that can only be described as “you know it when you feel it.” (I’ll call it a combination of singular style with a tantalizing touch of insouciance. An iconoclastic streak helps a lot.)

1918 georgia o'keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The eclectic exhibition, mostly culled from personalities in the fields of music, film, literature, and sports, includes some obvious choices — Miles Davis (whose defining jazz album was called Birth of the Cool), as well as Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, Elvis and Sinatra. Not-so-obvious: the poet Walt Whitman, singers Neil Young, Carlos Santana, and Selena.

But beyond the inclusion of the four divergent and groundbreaking artists whose images from the exhibition are shown here, lovers of the arts will be disappointed to find that many of their coolest heroes just plain didn’t make the cut.

Surely the legendary conductor, Leonard Bernstein, was way cool to lovers of classical music? Same goes for the opera singer Maria Callas, who hit some pretty cool high notes in her day. If the eminent essayist Susan Sontag was picked (justifiably so, though Truman Capote was inexplicably missing among the writers), perhaps the experimental modern composer Philip Glass might have merited a nod?  Annie Leibovitz, whose pictures of Johnny Depp, Michael Jordan, and Bruce Springsteen are among those on display, should have had a slot of her own as “cool” photographer. And there’s not a single figure from the world of dance — unless, of course, you count Fred Astaire — or theatre, for that matter (Tennessee Williams, anyone?)

1949 jackson pollock
Jackson Pollock, 1949

Five years in the making, American Cool is broken out in four sections (“The Roots of Cool,” “The Birth of Cool,” “Cool and the Counterculture,” and “The Legacies of Cool”). Jazz musicians are heavily represented, which makes sense, as the origin of the term as it is used now is attributed to the saxophonist Lester Young, who first popularized it in the 1940s.

The criteria for the selections, of which three of the following qualities had to met in order to qualify, were:

An original artistic vision carried off with a signature style

Cultural rebellion or transgression for a given generation

Iconic power, or instant visual recognition

A recognized cultural legacy

“The big question that we kept asking ourselves,” co-curator Joel Dinerstein told Smithsonian.com, “is, did this person bring something entirely new into American culture?”

In many cases, “yes,” as far as those who made the list. But no surprise that one person’s cool is often another’s “huh?” American Cool, which runs through early September, can make for some heated discussion…

1964 andy warhol
Andy Warhol, 1964

Photo credits:
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Dmitri Kasterine
Georgia O’Keeffe: Paul Strand
Jackson Pollock: Arnold A. Newman
Andy Warhol: Bruce Davidson