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.
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.
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.