Happy! at NSU Art Museum

NSU Art Museum January 3rd, 2020

Happy! follows a multigenerational trajectory from the mid-twentieth century to today. Among the earliest works included are two paintings by Mark Rothko: The Party, 1938, depicting a children’s celebration, and an untitled 1956 abstract canvas. Rothko’s thoughts about the nature of emotions in art provide the underlying theme of the exhibition. In a lecture delivered in 1958 in New York, Rothko declared that he meant his paintings to encompass the full range of emotions, and that he introduced “wit and play” and “hope” into his work to make the “tragic concept” of the human condition “more endurable.”

Although the color combination of vivid red, blue and yellow in Rothko’s Untitled, 1956, is unusual for his classic paintings, the coloration is strikingly similar to Matisse’s Joy of Life (Le bonheur de vivre), 1905, which suggests Rothko was aiming to convey the joy of life in his painting. The Party, 1938, also includes the distinctive high-key red, blue, and yellow coloration of Untitled, 1956, further suggesting that Rothko associated this color combination with moments of joy.

“For many of these artists, art-making is a way to channel sadness, stress, depression, and trauma. Their acts of creation reward them with a sense of euphoria or hope,” notes Clearwater. “Even when faced with a hopeless situation, they can usually find a creative solution.”

Cory Arcangel brings Rothko’s philosophical approach up to date by using wit and humor to denigrate technology for failing to deliver on its promise of progress. In his digital work on view, Arcangel modified the video game Super Mario Bros. so the protagonist has no means for escape. In this video, which runs as an infinite loop, Mario is stuck for all eternity on a cube. Mario’s dilemma is at once pathetic yet cathartic to watch, as viewers find themselves empathizing with his predicament. “For Arcangel, the creation of this and other works provided a constructive means to address his own frustrations,” says Clearwater.

Among other artists who address the subject of hope are Miami artist Jorge Pantoja and British artist Tracey Emin. Pantoja celebrated his emergence from a long period of apathy, which had inhibited him from working, when he painted Over the Hill and Far Away, 2018, in which his depiction of Spider-Man leaping into the void represents his own newfound excitement in jumping into what Pantoja calls “the friendly unknown.” Regarding Emin, Clearwater points out that “Emin has stated that she cannot work from happiness. Her early film Why I Never Became a Dancer, 1995, is a story of her triumph through art over personal trauma and humiliations.” The film ends with the artist alone in her studio, dancing like a whirling dervish to the disco beat of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” In the final scene, the artist looks out at the audience with a broad smile, giving a wink and two thumbs up as a bird ascends to the sky.

The exhibition also looks at archetypal symbols of happiness such as the smile, the rainbow, and clouds. Rob Pruitt’s 132 Rothko-like colorfield paintings are inscribed with smile emojis, and Yoko Ono’s A Box of Smile opens to reflect the viewer’s smile in its mirror.

Andy Warhol’s 1966 installation Silver Clouds is literally the “silver lining” that promises better times. Works by the art collective FriendsWithYou include a monumental inflatable rainbow and a major installation of their iconic character, Little Cloud. FriendsWithYou describes the floating Little Cloud as a symbol with the power to move the anxious viewer to a relaxed and joyous state by offering a positive message of happiness and connectivity.

Cartoon and manga characters and cuddly animals, often signifiers of childhood joy, also emphasize an upbeat outlook in the works of artists such as Keith Haring, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Kenny Scharf, Susan Te Kahurangi King, and Alake Shilling. KAWS’ bronze statue COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH), conversely transforms a universal pop icon of happiness, into his alter-ego COMPANION character to express his own feelings of mortification and remorse. Other artists use symbols of celebration, such as confetti, employed by Frances Trombly, and caviar, used by Enoc Perez, as emblems of transitory emotional states experienced before and after joyous occasions.

The power of music, dance, song, spirituality, sex, and psychedelic drugs are harnessed by several of the featured artists, including Tracey Emin, Keith Haring, Ragnar Kjartansson, Richard Prince, and Kenny Scharf, while the generous gesture of gift-giving and healing (acts that give both the artist and viewer pleasure) motivated Félix González-Torres, Samson Kambalu and Ernesto Neto. Several of these artists recognize the importance of play as a biological necessity that leads to increased happiness. As Clearwater notes, “Warhol intended visitors to his Silver Clouds installations to interact with the buoyant helium-filled reflective pillows. As they walk through the space the pillows rise and fall, creating an atmosphere of blissful enjoyment.” Kenny Scharf similarly provides the viewer with a mind-altering experience in his signature Cosmic Cavern, an immersive day-glo, multi-sensory installation that mixes Pop art with the hedonistic 1980s club and disco culture.

One section of the exhibition focuses on artists who reclaimed the joy of art-making that they experienced as children, eliminating the rules of art altogether so they could achieve a more immediate level of expression. These include several Cobra artists, such as Eugene Brand and Asger Jorn, whose works are drawn from NSU Art Museum’s extensive collection of this post-World War II art movement. Mark Rothko, who taught art to children from 1929 to 1952, and his contemporary, Esther Phillips, were formally trained in art, yet both chose to emulate the characteristics inherent in children’s art. Los Angeles artist Alake Shilling (born 1993, and the youngest artist in the exhibition) was inspired as a child by the work of Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and FriendsWithYou, and continues to tap her inner child in her paintings and sculptures.

Other artists in the exhibition imagine an existence in which sorrow and pain do not exist, including the representations of “Paradise before the Fall” by Haitian artist Gesner Abelard and Fernand Pierre. “Infancy is another state of oblivion,” states Clearwater. “This brief period of bliss is humorously disrupted in Christina Forrer’s tapestry Baby, in which a disembodied arm plucks a pink cherub out of the ether. The baby’s contorted grimace expresses its awakening to the horrors and tribulations of the human condition.”