Canadian artist Lawren Harris has been much in the art world lately, and not always in a good way. The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles has put up a show of his work – or some of his work, anyway. More about that in a moment. The controversy stems from the choice of Steve Martin, comedian, author, musician, and art collector, as curator of the show. Journalists and critics alike decried the choice, as Martin collects Harris’ work which, although none of the paintings Martin owns are in the show, is a conflict of interest. Curatorially, having an amateur in charge of an exhibition is also iffy, though more careful writers will note that Martin is co-curating with Cynthia Burlingham, Deputy Director, Curatorial Affairs, Hammer Museum, and Andrew Hunter, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, Art Gallery of Ontario.
“The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” is up until January 24, 2016. I’m not writing about that; you can go here to read Christopher Knight’s review from the Los Angeles Times. I chose that particular review because puts Harris’ landscape paintings in perspective, though a little more harshly than I might have done, while making the mistake of giving Steve Martin too much credit for the curation.
I’m writing today because of the other Lawren Harris, the one ignored by this show and usually hidden by his better-known self: Lawren Harris the abstract painter. It’s fine that Harris gave the Canadian landscape a distinctive look, a symbolic, abstracted look that varied through his career from a Bonnard/Vuillard type of coloring to smooth even surfaces more in line with Grant Wood or Georgia O’Keeffe. But after Harris turned to abstract art – with occasional forays back into more realistic scenes – he spent 37 years of his professional life, more than half, as an abstract artist. That turn to abstraction was controversial then, and it remains the Mr. Hyde of his career, albeit a mild, harmless Mr. Hyde.
The turn from heavily stylized natural imagery to pure abstraction was a gradual process; not as long as that of Kandinsky, but long enough to see elements of nature transform before us. Also like Kandinsky, his abstractions grow geometric and hard-edged, free from the emotive brushwork of his early years. They are sleek, streamlined as they might have said in the 1930s, but, like the landscapes, grounded in an emotional and spiritual basis. It’s hard to be more informative; Harris disliked speaking about his work, and preferred to let viewers come to their own understanding. There have been shows of Harris’ abstract work, most recently in 2014 at the Vancouver Art Gallery; you can read an interview with curator Ian Thom on the occasion of that show here.
The reason for this turning away from Harris’ later career? Abstraction of this kind is international, free from any association with any one country. Harris turned from “a leading figure in defining Canadian art in the twentieth century,” as the Hammer Museum PR describes him, to one of many abstract artists. He found a new side to himself, but lost Canada in the process. Perhaps that’s an exaggeration. Choosing to highlight Harris’ realist work is not surprising, but, without understanding where his imagination took him, it produces a shallow and even somewhat false idea of who he was as an artist.