Photo: Courtesy of Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation/National Portrait Gallery.
Today, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery unveiled what might be its most intriguing — and hyperbolic — undertaking yet: a photo retrospective of the 100 coolest Americans in history. Dubbed "American Cool," the exhibition features stars of music, film, literature, art, and beyond. There's Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro; Mae West and Bessie Smith; Steve Jobs and Selena.
What's considered cool, you ask? We're happy to report that the requirements are a lot different than they were in middle school. In crafting the exhibition, curators looked for subjects with four specific ideals in mind. First, an original artistic vision coupled with a signature style (think Fred Astaire); a symbol of cultural rebellion for a given generation (à la Kurt Cobain); iconic power or instant visual recognition (Madonna); or a recognized cultural legacy (Frederick Douglass). And, while plenty of names could still be added, the list manages to feel pretty comprehensive — even if a few subjects feel like a stretch. (We love us some Jon Stewart, but is he an icon of coolness?)
The best part? It's a strikingly beautiful show. With portraits shot by the likes of Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, and Henri Cartier-Bresson — artists worthy of their own exhibitions, obviously — "American Cool" serves up inspiring subjects and incredible portraiture. To really make the experience immersive, the gallery's soundtrack comprises works by 10 of the jazz, blues, and rock 'n' roll artists featured in the show. It's definitely not your typical day at the museum.
"American Cool" is on display until September 7, 2014. National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F streets NW; 202-633-8300.