The birth of cool


Dear Artist,

Another studio visitor asked me what had changed since moving from New York to California. “Your work looks like it belongs here,” she said. I’d heard this before, though much of the work had been first imagined before my migration only 15 months earlier. Wishing to downplay the apparent apropos, I diverted attention to the question of whether my eyesight was improving. Pointing towards the immaculately in-focus San Jacinto mountain range, I stated, “The air — the light — there seems to be very little atmosphere here.” “Yes!” she exclaimed, “everything is so crystalline, so articulated; the mountains, the boulders, the stars.” We were fans of the clarity.

Untitled, 1960 oil on canvas 28 x 42 ⅛ inches by Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978)

Untitled, 1960
oil on canvas
28 x 42 ⅛ inches
by Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978)

Artists who’ve spent time in the Pacific Northwest can attest to the desert’s antithesis: moody light and misty, inclement conditions that implore depth of field cloudscapes and totemic, receding, gradational islets — what we sky junkies affectionately call, “pea soup.” And in New York, artists respond to the atmospheric cacophony by soldiering through all its conditions, including the night’s, under halogens and LEDs. Now, here, my own paintings have emerged as abruptly sharper — made only in pure daylight — and as clean and neat as a California curb.

Coined in 1959 by Los Angeles Times art critic Jules Langsner, the term “Hard-Edge” was given to the work of painters reacting against the gestural and expressionist trends of the era; black, muddy globs that were the kings of New York and their raucous bebop brothers at the Blue Note. Soon, the term narrowed to the geometric abstractions that radicalized economy of form, surface clarity and a fullness and purity of colour. The movement, in opposition to Expressionism, also claimed California as its creative birthplace.

Untitled, July 1964 acrylic on canvas 36 x 36 inches by Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999)

Untitled, July 1964
acrylic on canvas
36 x 36 inches
by Helen Lundeberg (1908-1999)



PS: “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” (Miles Davis)

Esoterica: Until recently, I hadn’t connected my own explorations in technical colourfield work to the spirit and ethos of California Hard-Edge. Around here, its tenets seem to be laced into the tap water. In 1959, the movement’s inaugural exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art, Four Abstract Classicists linked the paintings of four painters; lively interlocking geometrics and sensuous flats playfully striving for equilibrium, all while offering a kind of laid-back intimacy. Almost 50 years later in 2008, a new survey, Birth of the Cool: California Art, Design and Culture at Midcentury toured museums across the United States. “The cool did not try to change the world,” understated Ken Johnson for the New York Times. “Rather, it was an end in itself.”

#37 Karl BenjaminThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Birth of the Cool was inspired in part by the formal parallels between modernist architecture and the West Coast Hard-Edge paintings of the 1950s. Just as the light-filled modernist house is open to the elements, with walls and ceilings more like planes floating in space than enclosures, Hard-Edge paintings of the period show an ambiguity between flatness and depth.” (Elizabeth Armstrong, Chief Curator of the Orange County Museum of Art, 2008)




  1. Beautifully stated, Sara, for those who can understand the Zen and peace of space and a quiet mind. Rock on– Someone said ”God is simple…everything else is complex”.

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Featured Workshop

Van Gogh’s Favorite City
August 17, 2019 to August 25, 2019


Join award-winning Plein air painter Sharon Rusch Shaver as she conducts her next exciting workshop in the south of France. Van Gogh’s bronze foot-steps dot sidewalks in the exact locations for his paintings in this beautiful city lined with rows of towering chestnut trees. Painting daily in your chosen medium: oil; watercolor; pastel; pen and ink artists as well as photographers will find plenty of inspiration in this city bathed in Mediterranean sunlight. Daily demonstrations and one-on-one help will be provided for those wanting to learn how to speed up and work quickly capturing that fleeting light and color in their paintings and with photos.

Chef prepared gourmet meals are served in the shade of the mulberry trees in the garden of this large comfortable country Farmhouse Maison only a few miles from the city where you will have a well-appointed ensuite room with views of the countryside for your stay. All-inclusive* 9 nights accommodation, transfers, meals, and instruction. Go to:

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Sharon Rusch Shaver Wine Drinkard
oil on canvas
40 x 50 inches

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There’s a hush… a palpable electric presence radiating from some of the paintings in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the galleries of the Frick Collection.


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