Theater & art

ART

Steve Martin’s latest role: MFA guest curator

Steve Martin watched the paintings of Lawren Harris go into place Tuesday at the Museum of Fine Arts. He traveled widely to museums in Canada to collect the works.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Steve Martin watched the paintings of Lawren Harris go into place Tuesday at the Museum of Fine Arts. He traveled widely to museums in Canada to collect the works.

NEW YORK — Steve Martin, one of America’s most restless and versatile creative spirits, is performing in an unaccustomed role. You thought you knew him as a comedian, a Hollywood actor, and screenwriter, maybe as a novelist, a Grammy-winning banjo player, a songwriter, or a playwright.

Now, meet Steve Martin: exhibition curator!

On Saturday, the Museum of Fine Arts will open an exhibition of paintings by Lawren Harris (1885-1970) carefully selected by Martin.

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A Canadian painter of austere, unpopulated but vibrant, light-filled northern landscapes, Harris is widely considered to be Canada’s greatest 20th-century modern painter. He is a founding member of the legendary Group of Seven landscape artists, but until now, in the United States he might as well never have existed.

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Nobody knows him. Nobody,” says Martin over lunch in a sushi restaurant in Manhattan, one week before coming to Boston to install the show.

He’s warm but measured, almost courtly, his composed face offering no hint of the squinty-eyed, rubber-mouthed mayhem that sporadically ignites his acting.

Well known as a discerning art collector, he owns several small works by Harris, although none is in this show, which Martin says is the first exhibition to focus exclusively on great works from Harris’s best-known period.

“Nobody knows him. Nobody,” says Martin of Canadian painter Lawren Harris.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
“Nobody knows him. Nobody,” says Martin of Canadian painter Lawren Harris.

Preparations for the “The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris” required Martin to travel to far-flung museums all over Canada. In most cases, he did so in the company of his co-curators, Andrew Hunter, of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Cynthia Burlingham, deputy director at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, whose expertise he conscientiously credits.

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During lunch, he tells several stories about “simple” responses to art triumphing over “sophisticated” ones, and says he thinks of himself as “just a fan.”

But Martin is hardly a rube. He is an engaged art lover who knows a great deal more than he likes to advertise. His 2010 novel, “An Object of Beauty,” is set in New York’s auction houses and commercial galleries, and narrated by a young art critic. It’s filled with astute and sensitive observations not only about the art world, but also about actual art works. The prose is witty, but also heartfelt, and regularly dazzling.

Harris, he believes, can fruitfully be compared to his almost exact American contemporary, Edward Hopper — although with big differences: “Hopper,” he writes in the show’s catalog, “saw isolation even where there was human company, while Harris sought the uplifting energy that isolation provides.”

From left: Andrew Hunter of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Martin, and Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer Museum.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
From left: Andrew Hunter of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Martin, and Cynthia Burlingham of the Hammer Museum.

Both visions, you suspect, resonate deeply with Martin.

“I haven’t thought about this before,” he says now, “but if you had someone copy a Hopper exactly, something would be missing. Something emotional would be missing. And I feel that way about Harris, too. Even though they look flat, if somebody copied it something would be missing.”

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What would that thing be?

“I don’t know,” replies Martin. “I don’t want to say ‘spirituality,’ but there is a presence of some kind of longing, for a spirituality, or nature, or something that’s bigger than actually what he’s painted.”

Martin was invited to organize the show — which comes to Boston after a stint in Los Angeles, and will travel from here to Toronto — by Ann Philbin, the director of the Hammer Museum.

Asked to dinner at Martin’s Los Angeles home, Philbin had been struck by what she described, in her foreword to the catalog, as the “astonishing beauty” of a painting on his wall.

“She said, ‘Who’s that?’ ” recalled Martin. “And I said, ‘It’s Lawren Harris. It’s Canada’s greatest painter.’ Because I love talking about him!”

Philbin knew nothing about him. But she later went, on other business, to the Art Gallery of Ontario, where she saw that museum’s generous array of canvases by Harris — some of them gifts from the AGO’s celebrated benefactor, the late Ken Thomson.

Philbin, says Martin, “came back with this idea of, ‘What if we did this show on him?’ ”

“My immediate answer,” he recalled thinking, “would be no. The reason my immediate answer would be no is, there are a million people who would be better at [organizing an exhibition of] most artists.

Martin watched the exhibit go up at the MFA.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Martin watched the exhibit go up at the MFA.

“But I thought, you know what? In this one case, I think I could actually do a good job. My name will help draw a little attention to it. I know where the pictures are, I’ve seen them all — well, I hadn’t seen all of them, I had to tour around to see a lot — and I love them.

“And you know, [Harris] deserves this, and it wouldn’t be done otherwise. So I thought, OK.”

Martin, who has been going to Canada since he was in his 20s, claims half his closest friends are Canadian.

“I did stand-up in a nightclub on Yonge Street [in Toronto]. But I really spent a lot of time there between 2002 and 2009, doing some movies and other things.

“I liked how you’d be driving around and you’d see an isolated house that was a bookstore. You’d go in, and there’d be tens of thousands of books, and they’d have sections on Canadian painters. You know? So I’d buy all that, and I got interested.”

He smiles as he remembers how he came to see his first Harris in person. “I had followed this one Harris at auction and watched it, because I thought, you know, I think I’ve discovered this guy!” He laughs. “It sold for $2 million. This was a long time ago — the same thing would bring $10 million now, no problem. I then heard about Ken Thomson, so I wrote him a letter and said, I hear you have all these things; I’d love to see them.”

Thomson invited Martin for a visit. “He had them all in a storage room, where things are just on the wall, like in a museum basement, and he had all these Harrises. It was the first time I ever saw one ‘live,’ you know. I was really knocked out.”

If it’s a pleasure to hear Martin talking about Lawren Harris — and it is — it’s all the more so because it’s not as if he has nothing else to talk about: “Bright Star,” Martin’s bluegrass musical, a collaboration with Edie Brickell, is in previews on Broadway. He has also recently finished writing a new play, “Meteor Shower,” which will open in theaters next year.

“It’s a bauble,” he says of the play, “But it’s right up my alley. It’s, like, funny. Supposedly. I hope so.”

Watch Martin talk about the exhibition:

Our exhibition of paintings by Canadian modernist Lawren Harris opens tomorrow. Hear guest curator Steve Martin?s take on the artist and his legacy in a free evening program: bit.ly/1XPgBTZ

Posted by Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on Friday, March 11, 2016

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.

An earlier version misstated the scheduling of the exhibit’s appearance in Toronto.