Rob Pruitt's Us (2013).
Rob Pruitt's Us (2013).
© Rob Pruitt / Courtesy of Rosa & Carlos de la Cruz

"Happy!" at NSU Art Museum Will Make You Smile Until It Hurts

According to a description on the NSU Art Museum's website, “Happy!” — one of the Fort Lauderdale museum's newest exhibitions — presents “artists who aim to engage the viewer emotionally."

That might be the thinnest premise for an art exhibit: If you're an artist and you don’t care if your work moves people, you should probably hang up your tools. It's unlikely this writer would've seen it were it not for the murderer’s row of art-world stars on display, including Takeshi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, Kaws, and Jeff Koons.

Despite the simple theme, “Happy!” is still thought-provoking. When you go to an art museum, you might ask yourself simple questions: Do I like this? Do I find this interesting? Is this well-made? But with this exhibition, you might ask yourself a different series of questions: What makes me happy? Am I happy? What does the museum think happiness means?

As you look at most of the works on display, that last question seems easy to answer. Everything is all bright colors and motifs that might seem more at home in a daycare center: flowers, rainbows, candy, birthday decorations. One room holds porcelain balloon animals by Jeff Koons, a painting of smiling sunflowers by Takashi Murakami, and two murals by the Miami collective FriendsWithYou made from children's modeling clay, one of which depicts hundreds of Pokémon characters. Making a notable appearance is Kenny Scharf’s Cosmic Cavern — a room-filling installation with bright fluorescent objects, such as those illuminated by black lights, while disco music plays on a stereo system.

Takashi Murakami's Open Your Hands Wide, Embrace Happiness! (2010).
Takashi Murakami's Open Your Hands Wide, Embrace Happiness! (2010).
© Takashi Murakami / Kaikai Kiki Co. Ltd. / Private collection; courtesy of Sabsay Gallery Denmark

In short, “Happy!” is not a very deep exploration of happiness. The emotions that art provokes in us are frequently more complex and nuanced than conventional happiness, sadness, or anger. This felt only occasionally true of the works on display in "Happy!" When stepping into the colorful nightclub-lite space of Cosmic Cavern, you might feel nostalgia for the times you spent dancing with friends at clubs or festivals. Two videogame installations by Cory Arcangel — a Tetris block frozen midplummet and Super Mario stuck on a floating brick — gave me a strange sense of anxiety and apprehension. Yoko Ono’s A Box of Smile delights with its clever twist: You peer into the diminutive black box to find not jewelry, but your own reflection in a tiny mirror at which you can’t help but smile. There's far more at play here than just generic, big-name brands and department store–grade joy.

There are some satisfying moments of curation. A primary color–heavy Rothko painting, though not particularly interesting on its own, is placed next to a work by Alma Thomas of the Washington Color School. The juxtaposition of a lesser-known, black female painter and one of the giants of abstract expressionist painting is admirable. But for the most part, it seems the curators are making certain assumptions about their spectators: That they must not be very emotionally sophisticated, that they’re not very deeply educated about art, or that they’re actual children experiencing fine art for the first time.

FriendsWithYou's Unified Field II (2019).
FriendsWithYou's Unified Field II (2019).
Courtesy of FriendsWithYou

This is the biggest problem with "Happy!": Because the art is presented so simply, the exhibition often fails to acknowledge or contextualize certain realities of the artists’ lives. The show boasts three works by Keith Haring, but the artist’s death due to AIDS and the immense toll the disease took on the New York art scene from which he and Scharf emerged are reduced to mere mentions. The second Murakami work on display is a Louis Vuitton purse, created in a 2007 collaboration between the artist and the luxury fashion house. It’s briefly described as an “avenue to spread his message” about consumerism, but it might also be seen as a surrender, albeit one considered creative at the time, to the forces of commerce with which artists so frequently contend.

If there’s any message an onlooker should take away from “Happy!” it’s that things are not always as simple as they seem, and a smile can mask something else entirely.

"Happy!" Through July 5, 2020, At NSU Art Museum, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-525-5500; nsuartmuseum.org. Admission is $12 for adults, $8 for seniors and military, $5 for students 13 and older, and free for NSU students and children 12 or younger.

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