Steve Martin Talks Lawren Harris Exhibit at the MFA Boston
Steve Martin, a man of many talents, is in town this weekend as the guest curator for The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris exhibit at the MFA, which opens Saturday.
Martin joined the Hammer Museum’s deputy director of curatorial affairs Cynthia Burlingham, Art Gallery of Ontario’s curator of Canadian arts’ Andrew Hunter, and the MFA’s Art of the Americas research associate Taylor Poulin for a discussion at a preview event in Boston on Friday.
Even though Harris was a founding member of the famed Group of Seven and is considered one of the greatest 20th century painters in Canada, he is relatively unknown here in the United States. Martin was excited to bring such a thorough collection of the artist’s work to American art lovers for the first time.
“This collection of Harris’s has never been together before,” Martin said. “This is the cream of the crop as far as I’m concerned.”
In collaboration with the Hammer and the AGO, Martin and company travelled across Canada to find many of the paintings featured in the exhibit. He admitted that it wasn’t too difficult of an endeavor as “most of Harris’s work of this quality is known in Canada.”
One challenge, though, was getting the Canadian government to allow them to bring such an extensive collection out of the country. Canada has a strict policy on transporting “cultural property,” although an exception was made in this case.
While many of these paintings are housed in Harris’s home country, Hunter remarked that even Canadians haven’t seen such a large exhibition of the artist’s work.
“This is an exceptional gathering of Harris’s work,” Hunter said.
According to Burlingham, the collection focuses on three areas that highlight the Canadian wilderness: the north shore of Lake Superior, the Rockies, and the Arctic.
Always the jokester, Martin compared one snowy painting to a “Boston summer,” noting it looked about 52 degrees. However, he also got serious with his thoughtful analysis of Harris’s style.
“Something transcendental occurred, something that goes beyond just a portrait of a landscape,” Martin said. “He’s brought into it the self, the soul, the exaltation, and isolation of men and women, of mankind I should say.”
In addition to the main gallery, the MFA created two complementary installations, one of which was also curated by Martin. Titled Lawren Harris: Modern Connections from the MFA Collection, the joint exhibit highlights the similarities between Harris and American modernists such as Georgia O’Keeffe.
“Positioning him here in this space among the Art of the Americas is a really bold move,” Hunter said. “It’s so great as a Canadian to see Harris in this context.”
Following the exhibition, many of the paintings will return to Canada as the country celebrates its sesquicentennial, although Martin joked that, “Of course they’re never going back.”
As for Martin, who has a longstanding appreciation for the arts, he called the project a “physical” and “emotional pursuit” that ended up being a “job of love.”
However, don’t expect him to guest curate another show anytime soon.
“I’m retired from curating,” he joked.