Over nearly four-and-a-half decades, Steve Martin has amassed an art collection that includes Pablo Picasso, Georges Seurat, Edward Hopper, and Roy Lichtenstein. The 70-year-old actor is keen on mastery—which is why he’d like you to trust him when it comes to Lawren Harris.
On October 11 The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris opens at the Hammer Museum, introducing L.A. to a painter unknown in the United States but considered a national treasure in Canada. Martin, who owns three Harris works, is so enamored of the Ontario native that when Hammer director Ann Philbin asked him to organize the exhibition, he took on wooing museums in Toronto and Montreal into letting their holdings migrate south. “Harris paints nature dramatized,” Martin says of the glowing arctic ice, monumental Rockies pinnacles, and ethereal Lake Superior woods Harris is celebrated for. “Certain pictures are not of a real place but are of something made up, the idea of a mountain rather than the mountain itself. He’s describing the feeling of nature.”
Martin has been famously private about his own collection, displayed just once, in 2001 at the Bellagio Gallery in Las Vegas. But he’s been very public about Harris, who died in 1970. The painter was a member of the Group of Seven—which was intent on creating a singularly Canadian style of art—and a lifelong theoso-phist. While the mysticism that imbues his paintings is undeniable, Martin, an empiricist, was captivated by the artist’s drive for technical perfection. “Harris was a real worker who thought constantly about what he was doing, and he would sometimes grow quite dissatisfied with it,” he says. “But he would move on and move on until he hit upon what he wanted.”