I was happy at "The Happy Show," Stefan Sagmeister's sprawling exhibition at the ICA. I wasn't bored. Sagmeister, a prolific graphic designer — most notably of album covers for David Byrne, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones and other musicians — has filled the second-floor galleries, plus interstices like the restrooms and elevator. The artworks include a bicycle-powered neon sign, films, bravura graphics and off-the-cuff jokes like a fire extinguisher transformed into a soothing "_ire Extinguisher." Sagmeister's comments on everything in the show — painted legibly but not artfully on the walls — add a second layer of meaning that draws the viewer into his conceptual dialogue.
The show explores whether one can achieve happiness as deliberately as one can achieve physical fitness. Sagmeister filmed himself studying meditation and illustrates happiness clichés and maxims in provocative, amusing ways. He also provides a smattering of information from cognitive science and related fields. One big diagram uses stacks of dollar bills to graph the maximum return of happiness as related to annual income. (It peaks at around $70,000.)
Sagmeister himself does not seem to support or respond personally to any one idea or philosophy. Consequently, one does not feel the remotest obligation to agree with any particular statement. That's refreshing. Another thing that made me happy is how I was surrounded by cheerful people, chattering, photographing and taking guided cell-phone tours. The show effectively banishes the buttoned-up intellectual restraint one associates with art galleries and gives everyone permission to be casual, convivial and, well — happy.
"Stefan Sagmeister: The Happy Show," through Aug. 12, Institute of Contemporary Art, 118 S. 36th St., 215-898-7108, icaphila.org.
Note: This is Robin Rice's final column for City Paper; she's leaving to write a book, and we're very happy for her!
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