A New Chapter in Steve Martin's L.A. Story: "The Idea of North" at the Hammer Museum

By Shelley Leopold

Steve Martin’s 1991 hit movie, L.A. Story depicted an insider’s view of life in Los Angeles, playing on some tried and true cliches of what it’s like to live in L.A. Glamorous weatherman, intrusive freeway signs, and complicated coffee orders are everyday realities. It’s perhaps the breakout scene when Martin’s character roller skates through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), that foreshadows the 2016 reality of what Steve Martin’s own L.A. story might include.

Instead of LACMA, Martin’s first curatorial effort, The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris opens at the Hammer Museum on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015. One can only hope that Martin, an avid art collector, got the chance to reenact the famous scene. “It was never on my radar,” Martin told Adam Gopnik of New York Magazine when he was asked why it took so long for him to curate a show. “This opportunity just fit me. I love Lawren - he’s virtually unknown here in the U.S. It was a nice opportunity to pull the curtain back on (the painter’s) best years.”

Lawren Harris is remembered as a North American modernist painter, one of the founding members of the Canadian “Group of Seven” collective. His American contemporaries were Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe, as well as a painter named Rockwell Kent, an eventual communist who left his entire body of work to Moscow. The Idea of North exhibit celebrates Harris’ most iconic images, made in 1921-35, that fulfilled his dream of establishing a true artistic Canadian voice.

In the context of Harris’ 30 works on view at the Hammer, the style he establishes as uniquely Canadian is more of an an intellectual, theosophic concept. Swirling patterns stand in for clouds and slabs of color become the architecture of mountains. Spare, austere, and mystical, these crafted, sometimes fictional landscapes depict isolation, yet retain a haunting beauty, thanks to Harris’ inventive use of literally radiating light sources. Harris’ triumph is creating energy and life in compositions that include no living things. Even his portrait of a dead tree, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926 represents strength and successfully examines the idiosyncratic Canadian optimism of winter survival. It's an idea his audience will appreciate even if they've never hiked the tundra and have only spent time on a quiet ski mountain on a cold, crisp day.

“I love paintings,” Martin continues, when asked if paintings, in this digital age, still matter. “That’s where I started. The first time you see a Twombly, it’s just scribbles. But if you keep on looking you’ll see the thought, the unity, the composition. It builds a vocabulary. It keeps me looking - It keeps me swooning. It was very hard to get these pictures together, yet this show equals my imagination. This is one of the most thrilling episodes of my life.”

Although we can’t imagine visitors would get away with skating through the exhibition, a visit to the Hammer should be on everyone’s L.A. itinerary. While we are witness to comedian, author, and musician Steve Martin’s L.A. story as it still unfolds, perhaps it can be part of yours as well.

The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris, curated by Steve Martin and co-organized with the Art Gallery of Ontario, is on view at the Hammer Museum Oct. 11, 2015 – Jan. 24, 2016. The Hammer is located at 10899 Wilshire Blvd. in Westwood. Hours: Tuesday – Friday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed Mondays and national holidays. Parking is available onsite for $3 (maximum 3 hours) or for a $3 flat rate after 6 p.m.