Group of Seven leader’s para­dox­i­cal ab­stract work went well be­yond moun­tains, lakes and ice­bergs

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - MUR­RAY WHYTE

Have we reached peak Har­ris? It’s a fair ques­tion to have on your mind as you make the trek to the woodsy sprawl of the McMichael Col­lec­tion of Cana­dian Art, where, yet again, a mass of paint­ings by the Group of Seven com­man­dant — 60-plus, all told — are now on view.

Enough, al­ready, you might say, wea­ried by the con­stant pres­ence of The Idea of North, the two-year­long Lawren Har­ris/Steve Mar­tin trav­el­ling road show, as it launched at the Ham­mer Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les, crossed over to the Bos­ton Mu­seum of Fine Arts and wrapped up, fi­nally, in Septem­ber here at home at the Art Gallery of On­tario.

It’s a con­cern McMichael’s chief cu­ra­tor, Sarah Stan­ners, had well in mind as the gallery started work­ing on Lawren Har­ris: Higher States, some four or so years ago. It was con­ceived be­fore Mar­tin de­clared his in­ten­tions and that an­nounce­ment, when it came, was de­flat­ing.

“For us, there was def­i­nitely a mo­ment of, ‘Could you fol­low a Har­ris show with an­other Har­ris show?’” said Stan­ners, on a walk­through of Higher States. “But The Idea of North was hard for those of us who have our heads in Har­ris a lot, be­cause the good bits at ei­ther end were over­looked. So, yes, we thought about it. But we have some­thing very dif­fer­ent to say, I think.”

If the Idea of North was an in­tro­duc­tory sliver of Har­ris’s best­known work, the brief pe­riod in the 1920s in which he painted sleek, high-Mod­ern moun­tains, lakes, is­lands and ice­bergs — since yoked into the ser­vice of quin­tes­sen­tial Cana­di­ana — Higher States is its long good­bye.

It presents a para­dox: the show puts on view both the least-known and long­est and most pro­duc­tive pe­riod of the Brant­ford-born artist’s paint­ing life.

By the mid-1930s, Har­ris, head swim­ming with the tran­scen­den­tal think­ing of theosophy, a semi-sec­u­lar mys­ti­cism, had left Canada in fact and on can­vas both, ar­riv­ing at an as­tral plane of ab­strac­tion, never to re­turn.

To put a fine point on it, one bizarre lit­tle paint­ing here seems a cheeky out­right farewell. In “Win­ter Comes From the Arc­tic to the Tem­per­ate Zone” (1935), Har­ris seems to be eras­ing his best-known works with a self-ef­fac­ing glee.

A weirdly self-con­scious mashup of his fa­mous ice­berg/mountain/is­land mo­tifs in the process of be­ing swal­lowed, “Invasion of the Body Snatch­ers”-like, by a mass of white goop seep­ing up from the fore­ground, it reads al­most as self­car­i­ca­ture and, if not, a clean break.

From that point on, Har­ris, the artis­tic flag-bearer of the true north strong and free, was an ab­stract painter, only and al­ways.

Just a year later, “Mountain Ex­pe­ri­ence,” from 1936, is a jagged mound of slim, sharp forms and makes the de­par­ture com­plete.

At the McMichael, a brief in­ter­lude — “Pic Is­land,” one of those great­est lake-and-is­land hits, roots Har­ris one last time to the ground and makes a launch­ing pad for his as­cent — leads into the clean, crisp forms of his cos­mic ex­plo­rations (Har­ris, like his con­tem­po­raries, was seek­ing a view into a fourth di­men­sion and the in­fi­nite, of course).

By the time of his death, in 1970 at 85, it had been 35 years since he’d painted so much as an ice­berg. The last ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of his life­time, in 1967, when he chose the works to be shown, was more than half-ab­stract. The last time a big dis­play was made of Har­ris’s ab­stract work was at the Art Gallery of On­tario in 1985.

If most of us know any­thing about this, it’s only vaguely and cer­tainly not well. There’s good rea­son. Icons need to be un­com­pli­cated to achieve iconic sta­tus.

In the na­tion­al­ist myth we’ve built around Har­ris and his co­horts in the Group, their vi­sions of the mythic wilder­ness and, if you’ll par­don the phrase, the idea of north have been in­ter­twined with an equally nar­row ver­sion of Up­per Cana­dian na­tional iden­tity.

If the stan­dard story hasn’t been enough to keep a lid on the bulk of Har­ris’s ca­reer, the art mar­ket has. “Mountain Forms,” a par­tic­u­larly heroic scene of the Cana­dian Rock­ies, sold for $11.2 mil­lion in the fall, bury­ing all pre­vi­ous records for works sold at auc­tion in Canada and fur­ther nar­row­cast­ing Har­ris’s oeu­vre.

“The mar­ket often tells the pub­lic what’s im­por­tant,” Stan­ners says. “Moun­tains and ice­bergs sell for mil­lions of dol­lars and the ab­stract works haven’t hit six fig­ures.”

Put that way, Higher States is a bit of a risk, but a nec­es­sary one. The Idea of North, part one, was a tightly cu­rated suite of 30 Har­ris paint­ings of near-iden­ti­cal tone: all cool blues and pur­ples, moun­tains and lakes and be­atific light, tai­lored for Amer­i­cans who didn’t know him.

Higher States be­gins with a chap­ter ty­ing Har­ris to the avant-garde New York art world of the 1930s, where he was a fa­mil­iar of Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s, an ac­quain­tance of the Sur­re­al­ists Mar­cel Duchamp and Man Ray and a fre­quenter of the gallery of Al­fred Stieglitz.

Har­ris lived in Hanover, N.H., and Sante Fe, N.M., where he’d be­come a co-founder of the Tran­scen­den­tal Paint­ing Group, where much of the work here was made. It’s glee­fully un­even, tog­gling from crisp, geo­met­ric ab­strac­tion to weirdly or­ganic-seem­ing, flit­ting hap­pily into vari­a­tions of colour and form that re­veal a hec­tic imag­i­na­tion at play.

In­di­vid­ual works aside, what Higher States does is yank him from his pa­tri­otic states­man role and re­cast him more re­al­is­ti­cally, as a seeker, how­ever ec­cen­tric, hun­gry for new knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Maybe he had wea­ried of his role as Cana­dian artist-in-chief. Maybe, in the ac­cel­er­at­ing march of Modernism, Har­ris knew that rep­re­sen­ta­tional painters would be left in the dust, at least for a time. And maybe the anonymity of a new world, and the spark of new com­mu­ni­ties and fresh chal­lenges, was what fed his cre­ative soul.

If Har­ris wasn’t con­tent with the cut-and-dried tale of the painter of the mys­tic north, then nei­ther should we. But the end of that story, when Har­ris, the ab­stract painter of rigid forms, bumped in the 1950s into the ges­tu­ral ex­plo­sion of Ab­stract Ex­pres­sion­ism, is yet to be writ­ten and Higher States stops de­lib­er­ately short.

So can we please stop talk­ing about Lawren Har­ris? Soon. I prom­ise. But maybe not just yet.

Lawren Har­ris: Higher States con­tin­ues at the McMichael Col­lec­tion of Cana­dian Art un­til Sept. 4.


By the mid-1930s, Lawren Har­ris had left Canada in fact and on can­vas both, ar­riv­ing at an as­tral plane of ab­strac­tion, never to re­turn. Above, “Ab­strac­tion 119,” ca. 1945.


Lawren Har­ris at Van­cou­ver’s Belmont Street stu­dio with his ab­stract can­vases in the 1950s. Higher States ends with the work on the right, leav­ing Har­ris’s fi­nal artis­tic chap­ter to an­other Har­ris ex­hi­bi­tion to com­plete the pic­ture.


Lawren S. Har­ris, “Win­ter Comes from the Arc­tic to the Tem­per­ate Zone.” This odd lit­tle 1935 work seems to be eras­ing his best-known works to sig­nal his break into ab­strac­tion with a self-ef­fac­ing glee, writes Mur­ray Whyte.

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