While he’s no stranger to the art world, legendary comedian Steve Martin has only just cut his teeth as a museum curator. His first foray into the field is “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris
,” a survey of the late painter’s work from the 1920s and ’30s at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
Organized together with Cindy Burlingham of the Hammer and Andrew Hunter of the Art Gallery of Ontario
, which collaborated on the show, it is the first major exhibition of Harris’s work in the U.S. A member of the renowned Group of Seven—an association of painters devoted to capturing the Canadian landscape—
created dreamlike, abstracted images in cool, lucid palettes of blues and greens, offering fresh, beaming visions of the Canadian wilderness. The works on view in the exhibition (which omits those in Martin’s own collection of art by Harris) refer to three particular locales: the North Shore of Lake Superior, which Harris painted between 1921 and ‘28; the Rocky Mountains; and the eastern Arctic, inspired by a trip there in the 1930s.
Alicia Eler sat down with Martin at the Hammer to talk about his longtime love of art, his own collection, and his experience curating this show of Harris’s work—which was three years in the making.
Alicia Eler: When did you first become interested in art?
Steve Martin: I first became interested in art just out of high school and into college. A friend of mine was an artist, and he was a well-spoken and enthusiastic person. And that would have been about 1964, a big year in the art world. We had just come through the
, and then the word about
started to spread. So you had these two completely opposite styles creating a lot of energy in the art world, and it was very, very exciting. But I got interested in 19th-century art first, and eventually to more modern art. I have many friends in the art world who are some of my closest friends.
How did you learn about art? Through going to shows and museums, or did you take classes?
No, it was all autodidactic. I was just obsessed. When I would tour around the country as an unknown comedian, I always spent the day going to college art libraries. And then I—I don’t know if “amassed” is the right word—a big collection of art books and monographs, which I thought was very important to have.
Was art a nice counterpart to performing?
It was a great counterpart to being a celebrity because you had this place to go where you weren’t a celebrity, where the artist was the celebrity, and where people loved to talk about art. I wrote about that in my catalog essay for the show—that co-curators Cindy Burlingham and Andrew Hunter and I would drive around and prove my point that art lovers can talk about art all day long and nothing else.