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Opinion

Column: Steve Martin wants L.A. to know, and love, Canadian painter Lawren Harris

Steve Martin

Comedian Steve Martin in 2012.

(Los Angeles Times)

Lawren Harris is a painter who is very famous above the 49th Parallel. Steve Martin is a writer, musician and actor who’s very famous at just about every latitude. Martin, a longtime admirer of the Canadian artist and owner of three of his works, wants Harris to become better known everywhere, including Los Angeles. A Harris exhibition, co-curated by Martin, opens Sunday at the Hammer Museum. Martin is nothing but serious about the artist and his work.

I gather even Ann Philbin, the Hammer’s very knowledgeable director, wasn’t familiar with Harris’ works. Why is he so little known in this country?

I conjecture it’s Canada keeping their art a secret. They haven’t kept their comedians a secret! Or it’s just Americans being largely unaware of Canadian art. It takes work for an artist to get known, and when you look at the work, you think it’s odd that he hasn’t been known in America because it’s so striking.

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FOR THE RECORD

Steve Martin: In the Oct. 7 Patt Morrison column, the name of the exhibition at the Hammer Museum co-curated by Steve Martin was incorrect. It is “The Idea of North,” not “The Idea of the North.”

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How did you run across him?

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I’ve been going to Canada since the early ‘70s; in the ‘90s I started paying attention [to Harris] and I buying books on the Group of Seven [early 20th century Canadian landscape artists] and specifically Harris, because he is who I really love.

You say he’s the only artist whose work you could imagine curating. Why?

Curating is best left to real scholars, but I know a lot about this artist and there was a reason to do the show, which is to introduce him to art lovers everywhere. I had great help, with [co-curators] Andrew Hunter and Cynthia Burlingham. I felt it was valid that my name might attract some attention to this artist, whereas another artist doesn’t need it. Harris was very successful and well known in Canada, but I felt there was a gap here.

The exhibition is called “The Idea of the North.” Harris traveled through the Rockies. He painted some cold, austere, stylized landscapes. It’s poignant given that with climate change, these places may one day exist only as ideas.

Honestly, I never put that together. It was mentioned by others, but I like [the work] because Harris was sometimes painting a real place and a real landscape, and sometimes he was painting the idea of a real place and a real landscape. And I think he composed some of these landscapes purely out of imagination.

Art prices are stratospheric. What does that mean for artists, for small collectors, for public museums?

I always say that art prices are very, very high unless you’re trying to sell. No one knows about the art market except the inner circle, and I’m definitely not in that. This show is so beyond the art market; these pictures are in museums and would never be for sale.

Isn’t it a paradox that some of the works you’ve owned for a while — Harris’ among them — you couldn’t afford today?

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That’s true, but thankfully I have a few nice pictures. Not as many as people think, but a few. It’s been a long, long collecting life. I’ve gone through hundreds and hundreds of paintings. I’ve always maintained an interest in this period, early 20th century.

Harris’ paintings are startlingly unusual; will you be watching for people’s reactions to them?

I’m very curious about the reaction, but on the other hand, [art] speaks for itself; it doesn’t need a reaction. The one thing you never want to read on the Internet are comments. When you’re just splashing around on the Internet, you can say anything, but people who take the trouble to go to a museum are in the mood. And the experience of going to a museum is analog. You’re right there, face to face. You’re not swiping pictures on an iPad, you’re really spending time, like we used to do.

How does technology affect perceptions of art?

That’s hard to answer. The world is more knowledgeable and can discover things more readily. The Internet helped me to discover music that I didn’t know about, especially bluegrass and banjo music. [You] find people you’d never have found in a million years. It works both ways, plus and minus. The way to experience this [exhibition] is to go, and not to log in.

We have the Hammer, the new Broad Museum, the Geffen Contemporary, the Norton Simon, the Getty. Are museums filled with individuals’ collections the future? You can look back at the Isabella Stewart Gardner in Boston too, but it seems there are a lot of collector museums these days.

As you say, this has been going on a long time: the Frick, the Huntington Library. It’s really a good thing. Museums are keeping up well, they’re the anchors of the art world and truly define, over time, a very loose canon, c-a-n-o-n.

What do you think of the Broad — as a building, a collection, a civic presence?

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I haven’t seen it yet; I’ve been traveling. I have high regard for Eli Broad and what he’s done for the city of Los Angeles, so I assume it’s kinda wonderful. Of course people are going to nitpick because it’s the art world and that’s what people do, and there’s always something to nitpick about, but I’m highly in favor of it. He has given three museums to the city — MOCA, which he saved, the Broad building at LACMA, which is fantastic, and obviously the Broad.

I’m sure you’ll see it when you’re back in L.A., but there are 85,000 reservations ahead of you.

Really? That’s like a New York restaurant.

Maybe those numbers mean there’s more public interest in art, an acknowledgment that it’s not just some intellectual indulgence. Yet it’s still missing from a lot of public school classrooms.

I do worry about the arts not being taught. I hear we want STEM; we don’t want anything with the arts. The arts have provided the world with its greatest emotions. And I’d include science in that too; I have a great love of science. These are the real accomplishments of the world.

In years past you’ve been very private about art and your collection, but you showed it in Las Vegas in 2001, and you’ve been more forthcoming about it since.

There was a time when I really wanted to keep my enjoyment of art private because it was one of the few things I could keep private. But now I have other things I can keep private. And I love the art world so much; I love the artists, the dealers, I love the paintings and the action and the fun and the silliness of it. Some of the best people I know are in the art world — and by the way, some of the best people I know are in show business.

Do you paint?

Oh, no, no. Terrible. The worst.

Not even cocktail napkin doodles?

Not even. And if I tried to pay my restaurant bill with a drawing …

As Picasso did according to myriad tales — his own bill, and for broke couples and impoverished servicemen.

It’s like the old joke: Cezanne painted 300 pictures; 1,000 of them are in the United States.

If you were to have your portrait painted, which artist in history might you pick? John Singer Sargent? Picasso? Van Gogh?

I would not really have a portrait of myself done. I had Eric Fischl paint a portrait of my wife. Martin Mull, who’s a friend and a very fine artist, did a kind of pastiche of some old photographs of me as a kid with my father. That’s a very compelling painting but not a portrait.

In “L.A. Story,” you roller skated through the galleries of LACMA. Ever get to do that again?

No, and I can hardly believe I got the opportunity once.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Twitter: @pattmlatimes

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