The biggest question surrounding the Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) next exhibition may not be what, but why: why would world-famous actor and writer Steve Martin co-curate a show on Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris? Martin, during a recent conversation at Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall with Andrew Hunter—the AGO’s Fredrik S. Eaton curator of Canadian Art—clears the air quickly. “I wanted to introduce Harris to an American audience,” Martin offers, before delving into the backstory of his affection for the artist’s work.
“I really discovered Harris when I was filming quite up a bit up here [in Canada]—things like The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen,” explains Martin. “I was going through a lot of old bookstores. I saw a painting in a catalogue that I thought was [American painter] Rockwell Kent, but when I looked down, I saw the name was Lawren Harris. In that moment I actually thought I had discovered Lawren Harris! [Laughs.] In America, nobody knew him.”
One-seventh of the iconic Canadian Group of Seven, Harris’s modernist paintings fixated upon the natural world, rejecting all that is urban. His canvases show sunshine beaming upon silky seas, ice floes in the Arctic tundra, and forests of pine trees. While he has been compared to Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe in terms of style and cultural impact, Harris’s bold, saturated canvases are distinctly his own. With his signature broad brushstrokes, Harris captures the great white North’s harsh climate and raw natural beauty in a sublime palette of blues, greens, and icy whites.
Harris died in 1970, but his paintings have only gained popularity in recent years. With the involvement and exposure given by Martin, a long-time collector of modern art, Harris’s popularity is spiking. A current auction record is held by Heffel Fine Art Auction House for an oil sketch of Harris’s, The Old Stump, that sold in 2009 for $3.51-million.
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris opens on July 1 at the AGO, which is the third stop on a tour that opened at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles last fall before travelling to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It includes over 30 Harris canvases painted in the 1920s and 30s, on loan from some of Canada’s top private and public collections, and a handful of art galleries. The exhibition has been in the works for three years, and Martin has been hands-on with its planning and execution.
Still, Martin can’t help but crack a joke about his role. “At first, I thought, me? It’s like asking Jim Carrey to curate a Courbet show… But then I realized that I understand [Harris]. And he’s unknown in America, and he shouldn’t be,” says Martin. “You know, usually painters that are easy to love go away over time. You use them up. But with Harris, you feel like you are the only viewer. You feel like it is you that’s been taken up.”
The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, runs from July 1, 2016–September 18, 2016, at the AGO, 317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5T 1G4, 416-979-6648.