Stefan Sagmeister


at Institute of Contemporary Art


“Now is a better time to live” and “keeping a diary supports personal development” were among the aphorisms offered to visitors of “The Happy Show,” the fun-house-like exhibition resulting from graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s ongoing exploration of the eponymous emotion. In collaboratively produced videos, photographic installations, text pieces, giant inflatable sculptures and interactive works, Sagmeister reflected upon his quest for personal well-being in this extravaganza.

Sagmeister, born in 1962 in Austria, has been based in New York since 1993. His design firm, Sagmeister Inc., is renowned for projects ranging from ad campaigns for Levi’s and HBO to album covers for Lou Reed, David Byrne and The Rolling Stones. (Here, text and reproductions told the story behind his 1997 cover for Bridges to Babylon.) He is also known for a controversial 1999 poster of his naked torso into which the title, date and venue for his American Institute of Graphic Arts lecture had been etched with a razorblade. The image echoes the Viennese Actionists.

This midcareer retrospective dissolved the borders between professional and personal histories by merging typographic and other attention-grabbing visual strategies with Sagmeister’s latest soul-searching sabbatical, which included a trio of three-month blocks dedicated to meditation, cognitive therapy and prescribed pharmaceuticals. The bold yellow walls with black graphics presented elaborate statistical charts (marital satisfaction, ideal salary) culled from the research of various historians and psychologists, and maxims such as “don’t expect people to change”—the latter in gigantic letters stretching up the double-height staircase. Scribbled everywhere—on walls, windows and even the bathroom mirrors—were messages ranging from intimate confessions to pedantic advice. Viewers could ride a stationary bicycle that powered a neon sign reading “My Overall Level of Satisfaction,” ingest the designer’s favorite ginger candy or leave a written reply to the question “what is your symbol of happiness?”

In the colorful, slow-motion video Now Is Better (2012), sugar cubes, coffee and Jell-O are used to form texts reminding us that there is no time like the present; these scenes bring to mind Bruce Nauman’s
language-based works from the late 1960s, such as Eating My Words (1967), for which the artist literally ate words cut out of bread. A black-and-white video projection from 2012 declares that It Is Pretty Much Impossible (to Please Everybody) in black letters stenciled onto the skin of an aging woman, suggesting the ways in which we try (and fail) to live up to ever more challenging standards. Videos of TED Talks featured Sagmeister testifying about his design strategies and personal philosophy, while the approximately 14-minute Having Guts (2011) served as a trailer for his forthcoming feature-length documentary The Happy Film.

While the atmosphere of “The Happy Show” was entertaining and even prompted self-examination at times, the conflation of commercial esthetics with self-help ran the risk of alienating museumgoers. The exhibition not only revealed Sagmeister’s struggles and satisfactions but also, by packaging soul-searching as another consumer product, exposed the superficiality of this self-consciously narcissistic project.

Photo: View of Stefan Sagmeister’s exhibition “The Happy Show,” 2012; at the Institute of Contemporary Art.