Guest Curator Steve Martin Also Selects Modernist Works from MFA’s Collection for Complementary Installation

BOSTON, MA (March 4, 2016)—Sparse landscapes of the northern shores of Lake Superior, frigid waters of the eastern Arctic and peaks of the Rocky Mountains on view in The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris transform the third floor of the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), on March 12. The exhibition—guest curated by collector, actor, writer and musician Steve Martin, in collaboration with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto—presents 30 iconic works by pioneering modernist Lawren Harris (1885-1970). The artist was a founding member of the Group of Seven, a collective of prominent Canadian landscape painters. The Idea of North, on view through June 12 in the Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries, marks the first major solo exhibition of Harris’s works in the United States. Additionally, the MFA creates a dialogue between Harris and American modernists, from Charles Sheeler to Georgia O’Keeffe, in two complementary installations, one of which is also curated by Martin, jointly titled Lawren Harris: Modern Connections from the MFA Collection. Programming related to the exhibition includes a free public event with Martin on the evening of its opening, March 12, and dance performances inspired by Harris’s paintings in the gallery. Presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with generous support from Lisbeth Tarlow and Stephen Kay, and David and Victoria Croll.

“Here’s an artist who is national, but deserves to be international. He’s not telling the story of landscape—he’s taken it to another level of the metaphysics of landscape,” says Martin in a video produced by the Hammer Museum.

The Idea of North debuted at the Hammer Museum in October 2015 and following its presentation at the MFA, will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in July, returning the paintings to Canada for the country’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2017. The exhibition features major works by Harris from the 1920s and 1930s, one of the most significant periods in his career. While his landscapes are iconic images in Canada, the artist remains largely unknown outside the country. Bringing The Idea of North to the MFA both introduces Harris to a broader audience and builds on the Museum’s commitment to expand the understanding of the art of all of the Americas.

“Lawren Harris’s powerful works evoke the purity and serenity of the northern landscape, capturing spiritual movement and energy. Presenting his most majestic paintings in a larger context serves to build a platform for Canadian art on the world stage, reflecting a celebration of the land that binds us,” said Matthew Teitelbaum, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.

The Idea of North is assembled from the AGO’s substantial holdings of Harris’s work, as well as major public and private collections across Canada, including the National Gallery of Canada and the McMichael Collection. The exhibition includes works representing three regions of Canada through which Harris traveled—Lake Superior, the Arctic and the Rocky Mountains—highlighting his personal experience of the Canadian North.

In 1921, the artist made the first of several trips to the north shore of Lake Superior. Transitioning from the colorful urban and forested landscapes of his early career, his work began shifting dramatically to stark scenes of bare trees, frosty blue skies and vast bodies of water. Harris’s paintings from this period evoke moments of clarity, with dramatic rays of light penetrating the still, glassy water in Lake Superior (about 1923, AGO) or the twisting, monolithic form in North Shore, Lake Superior (1926, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa). Harris traveled through the Arctic for two months in 1930, on board the government supply ship SS Beothic with fellow Group of Seven member A. Y. Jackson. Harris’s large canvas Icebergs, Davis Strait (1930, McMichael Canadian Art Collection), painted from sketches and photographs made during this trip, offers monumentality and timelessness in a fleeting, unpredictable environment. Several depictions of Baffin Island, the largest island in Canada, located in the eastern Arctic, are also featured.

Harris made his first sketching trip to the Canadian Rockies in 1924 and returned for five consecutive summers, aiming to convey the overall effect of his experience in the landscape. Resulting works include Mountains in Snow: Rocky Mountain Paintings VII (about 1929, AGO), a dynamic depiction of snow-capped peaks. Mt. Lefroy (1930, McMichael Canadian Art Collection) is an architectural, abstracted interpretation of the mountain, and two small oil studies of the same subject show Harris’s reduction of detail into essential lines and shapes. Isolation Peak, Rocky Mountains (1930, Hart House Collection) features—like several of Harris’s mountain works—a hybrid of real and invented elements, showing the artist moving beyond the scope of realistic painting.

Lawren Harris: Modern Connections from the MFA Collection

The MFA’s outstanding collection of American modernism offers a special opportunity to create a strong dialogue between Harris and more than a dozen of his US counterparts in two installations that accompany the main exhibition.

Martin selected approximately 20 works from the MFA’s collection for the first installation, which presents his understanding of the aesthetic connections between Harris’s work and American modernism. Juxtaposing the artist’s Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior (1923, Art Gallery of Hamilton) with Rockwell Kent’s Maine Coast, Winter (1909) and Arthur Dove’s Square on the Pond (1942), the installation also includes paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley and photographs by Charles Sheeler and Edward Weston. On view in the Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries, adjacent to the exhibition, many of the featured works are drawn from the Lane Collection, one of the world’s most remarkable private holdings of 20th-century American art, given to the Museum in 2012.

The second installation explores how themes of spirituality and stillness that Harris sought to capture in his paintings were echoed by modern American artists through alternate lenses of city, industry and nature. Many of the featured artists, including Harris, participated in the 1926 International Exhibition of Modern Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Two preparatory drawings that Harris sent to that exhibition—including one for his 1926 monumental canvas Mountain Forms, featured in The Idea of North—are on view, alongside paintings, photographs and works on paper by Charles Sheeler, Alfred Stieglitz, Max Weber and Joseph Stella, among others. The installation is presented in the Robert and Jane Burke Gallery and curated by Taylor L. Poulin, Curatorial Research Associate, Art of the Americas.

“This tandem installation offers a unique and exciting opportunity to present Lawren Harris alongside his counterparts from the United States, drawing parallels between works and seeing how these artists’ styles and aspirations converged,” said Poulin.


On Saturday evening, March 12—following the exhibition’s public opening—the MFA presents a conversation about Harris and his legacy with Steve Martin; the Museum’s Ann and Graham Gund Director Matthew Teitelbaum; New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik; and artist Eric Fischl, whose works are included in the Museum’s collection.The program takes place from 7–8 pm in the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard. Members of the general public will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis starting at 6 pm at the Huntington Avenue entrance. A limited number of tickets will be distributed to MFA members. Additional ticketing information can be found at

From April 6–10, the MFA also hosts free daily performances of a seven-minute solo piece choreographed by Robert Binet, Choreographic Associate at The National Ballet of Canada. Performed by the company’s Corps de Ballet member Spencer Hack, Binet’s dance, titled Lake Maligne, draws inspiration from elements such as light, mood and composition in Harris’s paintings, responding to the works’ abstracted forms. The choreography manifests a striking dialogue between the warmth of the human body and Harris’s stark landscapes. Lake Maligne is the latest installment of live art at the MFA, one of the first encyclopedic museums in the US to fully integrate performance art into its collections, exhibitions and programs.

Performance Art at the MFA is supported by Lorraine Bressler.


The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris (published in 2015 by the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Hammer Museum and DelMonico Books • Prestel) is a fully illustrated monograph with essays by Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director, curatorial affairs, and director, UCLA Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, at the Hammer Museum; Andrew Hunter, Frederik S. Eaton Curator, Canadian Art, at the Art Gallery of Ontario; Steve Martin; and Karen E. Quinn, senior art historian and curator, art and culture, at the New York State Museum, Albany, previously Kristin and Roger Servison Curator of Paintings, Art of the Americas, at the MFA.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), is recognized for the quality and scope of its collection, representing all cultures and time periods. The Museum has more than 140 galleries displaying its encyclopedic collection, which includes Art of the Americas; Art of Europe; Contemporary Art; Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa; Art of the Ancient World; Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; Textile and Fashion Arts; and Musical Instruments. Open seven days a week, the MFA’s hours are Saturday through Tuesday, 10 am–4:45 pm; and Wednesday through Friday, 10 am–9:45 pm. Admission (which includes one repeat visit within 10 days) is $25 for adults and $23 for seniors and students age 18 and older, and includes entry to all galleries and special exhibitions. Admission is free for University Members and individual youths age 17 and younger. Wednesday nights after 4 pm admission is by voluntary contribution (suggested donation $25). MFA Members are always admitted for free. The Museum’s mobile MFA Guide is available at ticket desks and the Sharf Visitor Center for $5, members; $6, non-members; and $4, youths. The Museum is closed on New Year’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. For more information, visit or call 617.267.9300. The MFA is located on the Avenue of the Arts at 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115.