Steve Martin curates Lawren Harris exhibit at the AGO

An exhibition of over 30 paintings by Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris, co-curated by comedian and art lover Steve Martin, is on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from July 1 to Sept. 18.

Comedian is so passionate about the Group of Seven icon he agreed to curate a show

Comedian Steve Martin has been an art lover and collector of fine art for decades. Now he's co-curator of an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, featuring more than 30 major paintings by the revered Canadian painter and co-founder of the Group of Seven.

Steve Martin speaks with exhibit co-curator Andrew Hunter (not pictured) at the Art Gallery of Ontario on Tuesday, ahead of the Canada Day opening of their exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris. (Art Gallery of Ontario)
Martin spoke with exhibition co-curator Andrew Hunter, the AGO's Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, in an onstage conversation at the AGO Tuesday to launch the show, which opens on Canada Day.

"I always thought it was going to be a big hit," Martin said of the exhibition. 

"I've always felt, just wait 'till they see these paintings all in one room."

Canada through an American lens

The travelling exhibition comes to the AGO via the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, where it debuted last fall. It also had a stop at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston before landing in Toronto.
Pic Island by Lawren Harris (1924) is part of the AGO exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, curated by comedian Steve Martin. On display at the AGO from July 1 to Sept. 18, 2016. McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift of Colonel R.S. McLaughin. (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)

Group of Seven paintings are front and centre in the hearts and minds of Canadians for their representation of the country's rugged northern landscape and for the sense of national identity they imbue.

But the showing at the Hammer Museum marked the first major exhibition of Harris works in the United States. That show included some of his most significant paintings.

It was the director of the Hammer Museum, Ann Philbin, who first asked the comedian to curate a Harris exhibition many years ago. She, like most Americans, had never heard of the artist until Martin introduced her to him. 
Untitled (Mountains near Jasper) by Lawren Harris (1934-1940). Collection of the Mendel Art Gallery, Gift of the Mendel Family, 1965. (2016 Estate of Lawren Harris)

As Martin tells it, "I do own a couple of small panels that I bought through the years that I just really like. In fact, that's how this whole thing got started. I had a small panel hanging in our house and Annie Philbin was over, and she said, 'Who's that?' And I said 'Don't get me started,' and here we are."

'I thought I discovered him'

Martin finally agreed to take on the project, hoping to make Harris as famous in the U.S. as the Canadian icon is at home.

"I thought I discovered him, then I realized Canada knows all about him," Martin told CBC's Wendy Mesley in an exclusive television interview earlier this month. 

"I felt a little foolish. I thought he was unknown."

The fact that few Americans seemed aware of Harris's work, while Martin had adored him for decades, finally spurred the comedian on to take on the job as curator.

Over a period of several years, Martin travelled across Canada to choose the right pieces for his exhibition.

"These pictures really haven't all been together ever. These are his masterworks collected from all across Canada."
North Shore, Lake Superior (1926) Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, purchased 1930. Copyright family of Lawren S. Harris. (National Gallery of Canada)

Abstract idealized images of Canada 

Martin said he first saw Canada's North when he went to the Yukon on a film shoot. There, the landscape reminded him of a Harris painting.

"I was helicoptered to the location and would fly through these mountains. I thought: `This is Lawren Harris,'" he told Mesley.

"Oftentimes, you know, a painter will paint a landscape and you think, 'That's not really what it looks like.' And then when you actually go see the landscape, you go, 'Oh, I see. He actually did paint it exactly like it is.'"

Mount Thule, Bylot Island by Lawren Harris (1930). Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Vancouver Art Gallery Women's Auxiliary. (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)
Martin has collected abstract expressionists such as Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, as well as work by Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper — both of whose work he says remind him of Harris's paintings.

While the Hammer Museum's version of the show provided an initial introduction to Harris's masterworks for an American audience, in Boston, his paintings were shown alongside American abstract artists. 

"In Boston, we were able to bring Harris together with the important early American artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Marsden Hartley," Hunter said during Tuesday's chat.

"And the work really held up, really strongly."

Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior (1923). Art Gallery of Hamilton. Bequest of H.S. Southam (1966). (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)

Martin also discussed the progression of Harris's oeuvre from realism to abstractionism over time.

"If you look at Harris's work you will see paintings of specific places. He's looking at the scene and painting it or maybe doing a drawing and taking it back to the studio. But then later, you see formal pictures like Isolation Peak, which are non-existent places that he's composing. And then you see a painting like the Imperial Oil picture and it's just theory," Martin said. 

"It's like the theory of a mountain … and that's where the Idea of North comes from."

Those sparse, austere, empty northern landscapes have helped shape Canada's sense of identity, even as the majority of Canadians today live in cities far to the south.

Updated for Canadian audiences

The AGO exhibition has been expanded for a Canadian audience readily familiar with the paintings of Harris. There are an additional 20 works that feature the artist's early career that serve to situate him as a Toronto artist.
Old Houses, Toronto, Winter (1919). Oil on Canvas. Art Gallery of Ontario. Gift of the Canadian National Exhibition Association, Toronto (1965). (2016 Estate of Lawren S. Harris)
Paintings from the 1910s and early 1920s, including scenes of the Toronto neighbourhood known as the Ward, show Harris's interest in social realism. He later abandoned this in favour of abstract northern landscapes, far removed from people and city scenes.
Red House and Yellow Sleigh (1919). (Estate of Lawren S. Harris)

Harris's "bold vision of the North, the one that so many people love, really comes out of this place," according to the AGO's Hunter.

"It is really something that emerges out of being in the city and being confronted by what was a deeply troubling situation for many people living in a fairly rough and gritty, emerging modern city."
Grey Day in Town (1923 reworked early 1930s). Art Gallery of Hamilton. Bequest of H.S. Southam (1966). (2016 Estate of Lawren Harris)

Artistic contemporaries 

The expanded exhibition in Toronto also includes historical work of several photographers, Harris contemporaries who also documented the Ward in Toronto in the early 1900s.

"It was a tough, emerging modern city that was really hard on working people and really hard on newcomers," Hunter said. 

"Harris dealt with that in his work. He wrote about it in his poetry. He spoke quite openly about being troubled by the human condition that he saw.

"And where some artists — the path they would have chosen was to stay on this path of social commentary — Harris ends up moving more into the spiritual approach. His response to these conditions was to look for another path and that path was in something that was more transcendent, more spiritual "
Arthur Goss photographed Toronto's poor neighbourhood, known as the Ward, during the same years that Harris was painting the area. The photos appear in the AGO exhibition. (Laura Thompson/CBC)

Beyond Harris

The Toronto exhibition also features work by several contemporary Canadian artists, including four commissions, that further explore the idea of the Canadian identity and landscape.

Anique Jordan's print series 94 Chestnut at the Crossroads, according to the exhibition catalogue, is "a powerful image of resistance against the violent systemic erasure of black histories and bodies in the city."
94 Chestnut at the Crossroads, four chromogenic prints by Toronto artist Anique Jordan, 2016. This print series is part of the AGO's Harris exhibition. (Laura Thompson/CBC)

Landscape on film

The exhibition's prologue and epilogue serve partly as a critique of Harris, but also a critique of Canada and the stories that we've consistently told, said Hunter.

"I think the challenge for Harris is that in choosing that path for very particular reasons, it also opens him to criticism for, in a sense, that kind of cleansing or erasure that happens in his work [and] can also be seen as an ignoring of a wider culture."

Another of the contemporary pieces is a specially commissioned film by Toronto directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nick De Pencier. It is surreal visually, recalling Harris's northern landscapes while also examining the human impact on our planet.
Ice Forms video installation, 2015-16 by Toronto filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick De Pencier, courtesy of Mercury Films.

Idealized vision of Canada

Hunter offers a final perspective on the enduring contribution Harris made in shaping our idea of Canada.

"Harris was very successful in the teens and 20s in supporting an argument for a Canadian art, a very nationalist perspective," he said.

"That really stuck. And that stuck even at the point later when Harris moves off into producing many of the works that you see in this exhibition, which are about something more spiritual and more transcendant." 

Watch Wendy Mesley's full interview with Steve Martin on The National on Thursday June 30 at 9 p.m. ET on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. ET on CBC Television (10:30 NT) or online at CBC.ca/thenational.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris is on display at the AGO July 1 to  Sept. 18.