Lawren Stewart Harris Untitled (Mountains Near Jasper), oil on canvas, 1934-40; Image courtesy of Mendel Art Gallery
A few weeks back, I went to see Steve Martin—of Three Amigos, Roxanne, L.A. Story fame—speak at a UJA event. He discussed his career, which encompasses massive successes as a stand-up comedian and movie star, and also as author and musician. A voracious creative type, it’s no secret that Martin is an art enthusiast and major collector. But many might be surprised to hear that he has added the title of curator to the eclectic collection of professional hats he’s worn over the years.
In October 2015, a major exhibition co-curated by Martin will open at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles; the show focuses solely on the work of Lawren Harris and will subsequently travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Lawren Harris, Lake Superior, c. 1923, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario
To many Canadians, Lawren Harris (1885 – 1970) is a household name. A member of the Group of Seven, he championed the majesty of the country’s landscape before taking on more avant-garde, abstracted subject matter in his later work. I have long loved his work; Harris’ paintings are among the first that I remember from my childhood, on weekend afternoons at the AGO. They stir something long-ago and, I suspect, universal in me. Inspired by Theosophy, Harris created works that exalted the spiritual power of nature using a technical precision that doesn’t feel forced.
He is arguably one of the most famous Canadian artists, and yet, his work is virtually unknown outside of our borders. Recalling his own discovery of Harris’ work, Martin is quoted as saying that “being an American, I thought he was an unknown artist. Little did I know he was Canada’s greatest painter.”
Lawren Harris, Lake Harbour, South Shore, Baffin Island, Morning, 1930, oil on beaverboard. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada
The anointment of Martin as a curator hasn’t been met with universal accolades; some critics have labelled the exhibition blockbuster-bait, citing other, more qualified Harris scholars who might be better-suited to the task of arranging a single-artist exhibition of this scale. While one can argue the museums are using a celebrity at the helm of the show in order to pander to the public and bring in visitors, I feel Martin’s interest is genuine and the attention he can generate for the show is a benefit rather than a detriment. I’m looking forward to seeing his perspective on Harris when the show arrives in Toronto.