LAWREN HARRIS’S ABSTRACTS
Group of Seven leader’s paradoxical abstract work went well beyond mountains, lakes and icebergs
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.