Lawren Harris art championed by Steve Martin in new exhibit The Idea of North

Lawren Harris's iconic paintings seem etched into the DNA of many Canadians, but the Group of Seven founder is poised to reach new audiences thanks to actor, musician and writer Steve Martin, the force behind the new art exhibit The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris.

Los Angeles exhibit will also make stops in Boston and Toronto

Lawren Harris art championed by Steve Martin

8 years ago
Duration 2:39
Actor and comedian is the force behind new exhibit The Idea of North, which opened Sunday in Los Angeles

Sunbeams against a lone tree stump. Snow-capped mountain peaks. Majestic Arctic icebergs. Massive pines laden with thick snow. Artist Lawren Harris's iconic images seem etched into the DNA of many Canadians, but the Group of Seven founder is poised to reach new audiences thanks to actor, musician and writer Steve Martin.

The Grammy and Emmy-winning performer and writer, former Saturday Night Live star and longtime collector of modern art is the force behind the new exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, which opened Sunday in Los Angeles at the Hammer Museum.

The Idea of North includes more than 30 of Lawren Harris's most significant works, including the canvas North Shore, Lake Superior, on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. (National Gallery of Canada)

Being a curator "was never on my radar — I think it's best left to scholars — but this particular opportunity just fit me," Martin said during a chat with New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik at the Hammer Museum last week.

"I thought about it and I said 'You know, I love Lawren Harris. I've been an admirer and — I don't want to say student of his — I studied him for many, many years and I felt like here's this fantastic artist in Canada that is virtually unknown [in the U.S.] … Here's an opportunity to pull the curtain back on this."

Harkening to Canadian musician and broadcaster Glenn Gould's landmark radio documentary with its title, The Idea of North unites more than 30 of Harris's best known and most significant northern landscapes from the 1920s and 1930.

Martin criss-crossed Canada to prepare for the exhibit, which has been in the works for the past three years. The show features Harris canvases on loan from some of Canada's top public and private collections, including the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Mendel Gallery and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection.

Martin, who has Harris artworks in his own personal collection, makes his first foray into art curation with this exhibit, which is also headed to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before arriving at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario in summer 2016. He worked alongside the Hammer's Cynthia Burlingham and Harris expert Andrew Hunter of the AGO to assemble the show.

 "I have an affection for Canada," he told Gopnik. "I'm a Canadadadaphile."

Simplified and streamlined

Born into a wealthy family in Brantford, Ont., in 1885, Harris studied art abroad and, upon returning to Canada after the turn of the century, sought to create and foster a distinctly modern Canadian style through his own work, as a founding member of the Group of Seven and by supporting fellow artists — something he did for the rest of his life.

Heffel Fine Art Auction House holds the current auction record for the sale of a Lawren Harris (the $3.51-million sale in 2009 of The Old Stump, an oil sketch Harris created before embarking on the National Gallery's canvas North Shore, Lake Superior).

With the interest created by The Idea of North exhibit, Heffel has high hopes for a trio of "museum quality" Harris works on the block for its upcoming annual fall auction in Toronto on Nov. 26Winter in the Ward (estimate: $500,00-$700,000), Winter Landscape (estimate: $1.2 million-$1.6million) and Mountain and Glacier (estimate: $1 million-$1.5 million).

"It's really rare to see in the free marketplace a major canvas in scale by any member of the Group of Seven, let alone Lawren Harris. By way of the term museum quality, in my mind, that really means it's the type of painting you'd expect to see if you walked into the National Gallery or the McMichael or the Art Gallery of Ontario.

As his own work moved from social realism closer to abstraction during the 1920s, "Harris completely eliminated people from his pictures," Martin noted. "It's amazing how this is the moment when he brought his pictures to life, ironically by eliminating everything."

David Heffel was lucky to have grown up with several major Harris canvases in his home, thanks to his art collector and industrialist father Kenneth Heffel, who founded what is now Canada's leading art auction house.

"Our environment was actually enhanced, physically, by Lawren Harris starting at the age of seven, eight years old," Heffel, who now co-owns the auction house with his brother Robert, recalled to CBC News.

"Harris had an ability to simplify and streamline, to focus on what was most powerful ... He's one of my favourites. I feel at home with him," Heffel said.

When thinking of the artist's famed mountain scenes, for instance, "I often think of a story Jess Binning told me," he continued.

"She and her husband, artist B.C. Binning, went up into the mountains with Lawren Harris and they were riding pack horses. The higher and higher they got, [Harris] just became mesmerized. She described it as if he was being detached from the mundane world and becoming euphoric as the altitude got thinner. So for Harris, it was almost a religious experience getting into the mountains: feeling the landscape at that altitude, with that much beauty."

'Thrilled by isolation'

In the new exhibition, Martin and his co-curators situate Harris as an innovator of the era, alongside American contemporaries such as Edward Hopper and Georgia O'Keeffe.

Steve Martin visited several galleries and art collections across Canada over the past three years to prepare for the exhibit, including making a stop at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2014. (National Gallery of Canada/Twitter)

"Hopper drew isolation as melancholic and horrible. Harris is thrilled by isolation on the other hand," Martin said.

"America is supposed to be full of hope and optimism, and Canada is supposed to be slightly depressed, and these pictures are expressing the exact opposite."

The exhibit and Martin's overall enthusiasm for the beloved Canadian artist could prove an exciting, "watershed moment" that shines a light on the Canadian art scene as a whole, according to Heffel.

"I think Steve Martin is actually going to prove to be a major catalyst to introducing these artists on a larger, populist level to a whole new, much broader demographic [from] many different levels, from top international art collectors who are based in the States to new artists in L.A. and Boston who will be discovering a great Canadian icon for the first time," he said.

"The power of these great Canadian icons, really, is they have the ability to go beyond Canada and inspire people from many walks of life and geographic locations."

The Idea of North, the first major U.S. exhibition of Lawren Harris's work, runs at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles through Jan. 24. It runs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from March 12-June 12, 2016, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario from July 2-Sept. 11, 2016.

'I think Steve Martin is actually going to prove to be a major catalyst to introducing [Lawren Harris] on a larger, populist level to a whole new, much broader demographic,' says auction house president David Heffel. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)