Monday, August 08, 2016

Lawren Harris at the AGO. And the current history of big Toronto institutions

Lake and Mountain (AGO website)

Went down to the Art Gallery of Ontario recently to see The Idea of North, the big Lawren Harris show, the one driven into existence by a Los Angeles gallery galvanized by actor Steve Martin's insistence that Harris is a great 20th century artist.

The AGO participated in the development of the exhibit, but the one showing in Toronto is quite different from the LA show.  Martin's interest is in masterpieces.  He's convinced that Harris's semi-abstract, semi-spiritual images of northern peaks and bergs are the vital and important part of his oeuvre, and the LA show, as best as I can tell from the AGO comments, concentrated on them entirely.

The AGO, however, has bookended the mountain spectaculars with two section on Harris's work in and on Toronto.  The first is largely his small images of houses and streetscapes in the rundown downtown neighbourhood called The Ward.  The second is more generally about his urban and architectural abstractions and their relations to Toronto.

In both these sections, the curatorial emphasis is quite different from the North image.  Where Martin is interested only is masterworks of art, the AGO is sociological and cultural.  It takes note of Harris's neglect of minorities in the Ward and of Inuit in the north, and juxtaposes his works against works by contemporary artists with different techniques and emphases.  Martin, one might guess, wouldn't give a damn about all that.  He's chasing the pantheon, not using art for social criticism.

We noticed, for what it is worth, that the Toronto sections of the exhibit, with many small paintings that repay close attention, seemed much more crowded than the central space with the large, austere Idea of North paintings.

We have been members of both the Art Gallery and the Royal Ontario Museum for years, and I cannot help comparing.  The AGO seems to have interesting programming all the time, very global in scope, but also distinctly engaged with Canada and with Toronto. (The Harris show followed a large Colville retrospective, and other Canadian work is frequently featured.). AGO shows always reflect smart, provocative curatorship.

Right now the ROM is featuring an exhibit on tattooing (from a French museum) and a show of Dale Chihuly's glassblowing craft, both of which seem unambitious, not much interested in connoisseurship, and conveying a feel that they were pushed forward by marketing departments rather than curators. I cannot remember when the ROM last had any interesting programming on a Canadian subject. The new director of the ROM is an American who built his reputation in raising funds from the (large, rich American) private sector.  He succeeds an Australian who did not stay long.  I think the ROM is in trouble.

The Idea of North is at the AGO until September 18.

Update, August 10:  My art historian friend disagrees about the AGO's curatorship. She thinks their context and presentation work on Harris is actually pretty lazy, and the AGO could have done much more to present Harris, who he was, and how his art practice evolved. Fair enough. But I've found myself in two or three conversations about the exhibit, and so far every Canadian agreed they found Harris's big northern paintings -- and Los Angeles's "idea of north" -- left them, well, a bit cold.
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