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Turning from comedy to Canadian art, Steve Martin curates show on the works of Lawren Harris

In this Wed., Oct. 7, 2015, photo, curator and actor-comedian, Steve Martin, second from right, co-curator Andrew Hunter, left, Ann Philbin, second from left, Director of The Hammer Museum, and co-curator Cynthia Burlingham pose in a gallery for the exhibition, "The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris," at The Hammer Museum in in Los Angeles. The show, which travels to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and Canada’s Art Gallery of Ontario next year, opens Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015.
Image Credit: Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP
October 12, 2015 - 7:00 AM

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Comedian, actor, writer, musician, and now we can add art curator to that long list of titles placed alongside Steve Martin's name.

The man who brought bluegrass music to mainstream audiences and introduced the banjo and balloon animals to comedy routines has a new passion: He wants to imbue in U.S. audiences the same deep admiration he has for the works of Lawren Harris, arguably Canada's most revered artist and one almost completely unknown in the U.S.

He'll get that chance beginning Sunday when "The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris" opens at Los Angeles' Hammer Museum.

The show, which travels to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and Canada's Art Gallery of Ontario next year, will be the first and likely the last exhibition he curates, Martin said earlier this week as he led a visitor on a private tour.

"I love this!" he exclaimed, pointing to a large oil-on-canvas work depicting Canada's Lake Superior in a way so colorful as to appear almost psychedelic, while at the same time maintaining a look of total realism.

"You know, if you were standing in front of this locale, you would know he just captured it perfectly," he continued, pointing out how the artist had subtly captured the weather and time of day.

Then, pointing to an equally majestic but more esoteric rendering of the snowcapped mountains of Jasper National Park, he noted, "Pictures like this one show a very unreal place. It almost looks like an ascendency into heaven."

The artist's ability to strike a dichotomy between the abstract and the real was one of the things Martin said drew him to Harris' work.

He'd discovered him years ago when he'd mistaken a Harris painting for one by prominent American landscape artist Rockwell Kent.

"I started saying that was the best Rockwell Kent I've ever seen,'" he recalled with a chuckle. "And I looked down below and it said Lawren Harris."

Intrigued, he began studying the painter, eventually acquiring three of his works and adding them to a collection that includes pieces by Picasso, Georges Seurat and Edward Hopper.

None of those pieces are included in the Hammer exhibition, however.

"My pieces are minor," Martin said dismissively. "This is basically a museum show."

Still, one of them was good enough to captivate the Hammer's executive director, Ann Philbin, who saw it during a dinner party at Martin's house.

When she asked who the artist was, the entertainer waxed on about the brilliance of this man from Canada whose work from the 1920s to the mid-1930s defined his country's image as the great, unspoiled frozen North. But whose reputation is unknown south of the Canadian border.

Harris, who died in 1970, turned to abstract expressionism later in life, but this exhibition focuses strictly on his Canada-defining landscapes.

After concluding the artist was someone U.S. arts patrons needed to know about, Philbin approached Martin about curating a show.

"The first response in my mind was, 'Of course not,'" he recalled. "But then I thought, well, I do know a lot about him."

But the deciding factor, he said with a robust laugh, was when he realized, "Nobody else is going to do it."

Technically, Martin had curated one other exhibition, of his personal collection at Las Vegas' Bellagio Hotel in 2001. But he said that didn't count. "It's easy to curate your own collection. You just put 'em all in a museum."

With help from Hammer curator Cynthia Burlingham and Art Gallery of Ontario curator Andrew Hunter, he spent three years putting this show together.

It was no easy task given that the paintings came from museums all over Canada that were not anxious to loan their most iconic treasures.

The result, Hammer officials say, is that these 32 paintings have never been seen in one show before and likely never will be again.

"Steve was not invited to curate this because he's a celebrity," Philbin said. "However, I have to admit that because he's Steve Martin I think it gave us access to works that we might not have gotten otherwise."

News from © The Associated Press, 2015
The Associated Press

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