As every Canadian must know by now, Steve Martin – uh-huh, that Stephen Glenn Martin! – has had a decades-long passion for art, building a much-admired and diverse collection that includes three paintings by none other than Canadian master Lawren Harris (1885-1970). About four years ago Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, spotted one of these Harrises at Martin's home, expressed her admiration and before long was urging Martin to curate a touring exhibition of some of the painter's strongest work. Result? A much-publicized show, titled The Idea of North, that opened last fall at the Hammer Museum, then moved to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Now a much-expanded version has arrived at its final destination, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. Recently, The Globe and Mail met with the dapper 70-year-old actor/author/banjoist/comedian/playwright/connoisseur at the AGO where he was helping install Idea's last iteration.
In the preface to the catalogue you talk about Harris being the only artist you could ever have conceived curating…
When this came up, my first instinct was to say, "Of course not." But then I thought I'd think about it overnight because the prospect of bringing Lawren Harris to America really excited me. I think of myself as a shepherd [laughs] who kind of paved the way to bring him down to America and the results, I think, were just fantastic. This is not a popular period of art right now. It's all contemporary, all about contemporary art right now. There are very few shows dedicated to artists who aren't international stars. So you have to hand it to Boston and Los Angeles to take the chance – I mean, they saw the art, knew it was valid and fantastic – but to bring an artist that most people had never heard of in America was wonderful.
Now that you've had a taste of curation do you want to do it again?
I'm not seeking anything and if somebody proposed something, unless it was particularly relevant to me or someone I understood … well, I'm never saying no but it's not on my radar to do another one. Also, it's tough for the art world to feature celebrity curators. Annie Philbin thoughtfully told me, "We don't think of you as a celebrity; we think of you as an artistic person." But with Harris, I felt it was appropriate for me because no one was standing in line to do it [laughs]. Canada had no problems with it. We went to the McMichael, the Mendel [in Saskatoon] and everybody saw the prospect as a good idea. Hence, the quality of the pictures we got.
Was it always your intention to take what I call the "bio-vignette" approach as opposed to the "biopic" approach to Harris?
Absolutely. The pictures he did between, say, 1921 and 1930 spoke to me, they're the pictures that I feel transcend a kind of nationalistic art and to me represent his great accomplishment. I felt the obligation to put the artist's best foot forward in a kind of contained show. For a foreign spectator, it's a lot to go from a picture of a Toronto street scene to the icebergs. That to me is a "next show" experience.
Los Angeles and Boston had 30, 31 pictures on view. Here it's something like 90, not all of them Harrises. Do you think you're losing any intensity of focus by doing that?
No. Because America needed that intensity. Canada doesn't. Canada knows these pictures – although I always like to point out that this is the first time that pictures of this period and quality have hung together in the same room. So I do think expanding it for Canadians is important – to see the early work, where he went, where it ended up. And I love the idea of having contemporary artists creating things inspired by Harris.
The theme "Idea of North," its association with Glenn Gould: Was that idea right there from the start or did it arise from picking the pictures?
I really searched for a title. I have titled things before, successfully. But I was having trouble here. The title "Idea of North" was floating around. And it's so perfect [chuckles]. That's the trouble. I hated to use an old phrase because I wanted something we hadn't heard before. But still it is so perfect.
So you surrendered?
I surrendered. And I love it.
In this exercise of visiting Canadian galleries, are there any contemporary Canadian artists who caught your eye en route to the Harris trove?
I'm not that familiar with contemporary Canadian artists. Well, Peter Doig; I love him.…
He's an honorary Canadian. [Doig, while he spent close to 15 years in Canada and has prominently featured Canadian locations in his art, is Scottish-born and now lives in Trinidad.] Julian Barnes asked me a couple of weeks ago, "Does Peter Doig count as Canadian?" And I replied with that old Peter Gzowski line about him being "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances."
Okay, I'm not that familiar with very contemporary Canadians but I do have a growing fascination with painters from the fifties, the sixties, the sort of abstract expressionists. I always forget how to pronounce his name. Bourdeau?… Borduas! I like him.
You famously appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1981 hamming it up before a painting you owned by the American abstract expressionist Franz Kline. And I know you have stuff by Willem de Kooning and Roy Lichtenstein. Is that where you started collecting?
No, I started with 19th-century American landscape painting. And that's what led me to the early 20th-century modernists [Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley]. You look at something and for me at least there's the question, "Well, what happened next?" And then that modernism led me to abstract expressionism and so on.
Sigmund Freud smoked 20 or so cigars a day but never questioned why, preferring to say, reportedly, that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Looking at the paintings you chose for the Harris show, one can't but notice these solid, rigid forms thrusting skyward like [Martin starts to laugh here, saying, "Uh-oh."] The Old Stump, Lake Superior.
I never thought of that.
Well, I'm a dirty old man then.
Yeah [laughs], you are. I don't think mountain forms are phallic; they're … triangles, essentially. Only North Shore, Lake Superior [the painting based on the sketch Old Stump] has that quality, that I can think of. There are those paintings of dead, upright trees but they have branches so that kind of takes it out of the phallic realm.
When Harris split from his wife in 1934 and took up with the wife of a good friend, the couple announced the marriage would be chaste and lived on a very high spiritual plane from that point on. He's not a terribly sexy painter, would you say that?
I would say that. Although I do find the period we're dealing with, the works are sexy not because they refer to sex but because they're emotional. I mean, I'm trying to think who you'd think of as a sexy painter. Is van Gogh a sexy painter?
I guess I'm just talking about the way the word is used now.…
Gauguin could be sexy.
This interview has been edited and condensed.