This October actor, writer and musician Steve Martin helps the Hammer Museum at UCLA stage the first major U.S. show of paintings by Canadian artist Lawren Stewart Harris with the exhibition “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris.”
Martin served as curator of the exhibition, which was co-organized by the Hammer and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto. Martin worked with Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director, curatorial affairs at the Hammer Museum, and Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art at the AGO. “The Idea of North” opens Oct. 11 and runs until Jan. 24, 2016.
Though largely unknown in the United States, Harris was a founding member of the Canadian Group of Seven and a major figure in the history of 20th-century Canadian art. The exhibition will feature more than 30 of Harris’ most significant northern landscapes from the 1920s and 1930s, drawn from major public and private collections across Canada including the AGO, the Thomson Collection at the AGO, the National Gallery of Canada, and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” examines the defining period for the artist as a leading modernist painter, an innovator on par with contemporaries Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe.
Focusing on three main regions — the north shore of Lake Superior, the Rocky Mountains, and the Eastern Arctic — the paintings offer a bold “idea of north,” to borrow a phrase from musician and broadcaster Glenn Gould from which the exhibition draws its name. During the 1920s Harris progressed from a defiantly nationalistic interpretation of the northern landscape to a more universal conception that saw the land as a source of inspiration for a clear and refined spiritual vision. Paintings such as “North Shore, Lake Superior” (1926) and “Mt. Lefroy” (1930) remain haunting and clear statements of an individual striving to transcend the surface to a more profound reality.
Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Martin describes the significance of this period of Harris’ career: “A painter of the backwoods and the streets of Toronto, Harris went by boxcar, boat, and boot to the Canadian north, and it provided his work with the necessary elevation. He stopped making scenes of shady lanes and streets with strolling couples, and almost every living thing vanished from his pictures. He now began a series of paintings that achieved — then surpassed — his dream of a national art of Canada. But these new scenes, devoid of life except for the occasional mossy plain, are not dead. The absence of organic things in the mountains, lakes, and icebergs he now painted created a paradoxical effect: the pictures came to life.”
“When Steve Martin first introduced us to Lawren Harris’s paintings, I was struck by their astonishing beauty and surprised by how virtually unknown this Canadian artist is in the U.S.,” said Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum. “Following in the tradition of artist-curated exhibitions like Robert Gober’s Charles Burchfield exhibition and the ongoing Houseguest series, we invited Steve to apply his deep knowledge of twentieth-century art to introduce an American audience to Harris’ work.”
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue with essays by Steve Martin, Cynthia Burlingham, Andrew Hunter, and Karen Quinn, senior historian and curator, art and culture at the New York State Museum in Albany, New York.
Harris was born Oct. 23, 1885 in Brantford, Ontario. By early 1908 he established himself as painter of both landscapes and urban views, attempting to synthesize a socially-conscious, internationally relevant but still distinctly Canadian modernist idiom. Harris developed an international reputation during the spring of 1920, when he exhibited along with longtime associates Franklin Carmichael, A.Y. Jackson, Frank (later Franz) Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. (Jim) MacDonald, and Frederick Varley as a founding member of the “Group of Seven.” Over the course of the next decade, Canada’s northern wilderness, which Harris frequently visited on periodic sketching trips, became central to Harris’s conception of himself as a landscape painter.
The early 1930s were a period of transition in Harris’s life and work. In the fall of 1934, Harris left Canada for New England, where he dedicated himself exclusively to abstract painting. Moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1938, Harris became an important member of the incipient Trancendental Painting Group, which held its first exhibition in April 1939. When Harris finally returned to Canada in the mid 1940s, he was regarded as an elder statesman of Canadian art, becoming the first artist to serve on the board of the National Gallery in Ottawa and the first Canadian to be accorded a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) in 1948. Harris died on Jan. 29, 1970, just four months after the loss of his wife.
“The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” is co-organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, and curated by Steve Martin in collaboration with Cynthia Burlingham, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, Hammer Museum, and Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario. The Hammer Museum’s presentation is made possible by a generous gift from Manuela Herzer and the Herzer Foundation. Read the full news release for “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris.”
Also opening in October at the Hammer, “UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015,” the most comprehensive survey to date of the L.A.-based artist Frances Stark, who was born in 1967 in Newport Beach. Curated by Hammer curator Ali Subotnick with Emily Gonzalez-Jarrett, curatorial associate, in close collaboration with the artist, the exhibition features 125 works, including Stark’s early carbon drawings, intricate collages, and mixed-media paintings as well as her more recent videos. “UH-OH” delves into Stark’s use of text — including words and phrases from pop songs and literature — with imagery to create visual material that evokes the process of writing and explores doubt and pride, beauty, motherhood, artistry, class, literature, education and communication. Read the full news release for “UH-OH: Frances Stark 1991-2015.”