"What would it be like to know nothing about Lawren [Harris] and walk in?" says Steve Martin (acting here as guest curator) about the latest exhibition at the Hammer Museum. With no context whatsoever, the cool-colored landscapes are pleasantly dreamy. But with a little bit of background, the show is a revelatory history lesson.
"The Idea of North" is the first major exhibition of works from Canadian artist Lawren Harris to be presented in the United States—the Hammer says his work was last shown in LA in 1926. Though Harris's paintings are iconic in Canada, they've never made an impact in the U.S.; in fact, it was Martin who first introduced the little-known artist to the Hammer.
The show presents over 30 landscape paintings and studies of Lake Superior and the Canadian Rockies. The scenes depicted represent idealized impressions of real locations, with a style somewhere between Edward Hopper's realism and Georgia O’Keeffe's abstraction. Harris's work fits in so well with America's bread-and-butter landscape painters that it's frustrating most of us are only now discovering these images from the 1920s and '30s. But that sense of fresh discovery is ultimately one of the most rewarding parts of the exhibition.