Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 14, 2019
Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries Fredericton, New Brunswick and Kleinburg, Ontario: Goose Lane Editions and McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2017. 204 pp.; 82 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. Hardcover $50.00 (9780864929655)

The aim of Higher States, as explained in the preface, is “to be a richly illustrated resource on the first half of [Lawren] Harris’s abstract painting career within a transnational context,” and the essays by Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens describe “the social, intellectual, and aesthetic milieu in which Harris immersed himself, in both Canada and the United States, from the mid to late 1920s up to and about the end of World War II.” In “Harris’s Modernity: The Engineering Draughtsman’s Instruments,” Nasgaard employs a variety of ways to describe, explain, and define Harris’s modernism. He outlines the artist’s commitment to theosophy, an observation utilized to suggest that theosophy was for Harris a gateway to abstract thought that later found expression in abstract art. He also observes that evidence of Harris’s intense spirituality can be seen in his fascination with transcendentalism (as practiced by Emerson and Whitman), and that by 1934 he “overrode his national based hesitations”—as can be seen in his role as leader of the Group of Seven, the band of painters that reimagined the Canadian landscape in ways that steadfastly rejected the academic approaches of its predecessors—“to engage enthusiastically with international modernist developments.” Nasgaard then describes the Canadian artist’s involvement with Katherine Dreier, and his successful lobbying in 1927 to bring the Société Anonyme exhibition to the Art Gallery of Toronto, a landmark event in the introduction of “advanced” art (many of them abstractions) to Canada. Nasgaard pays close attention to Harris’s Lighthouse, Father Point (1930) and connects it convincingly to works such as Charles Demuth’s Aucassin and Nicolette (1921). He also links Harris to the Canadian abstract artists Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn, shows congruencies between Harris’s bridge images and those of Edward Steichen and José Arentz, suggests links between Harris and Wassily Kandinsky, and then discusses Harris’s involvement with the Santa Fe–based Transcendental Painting Group. Gwendolyn Owens’s “A High Sort of Seeing: Emerson, Harris, and the American Moderns” further attempts to link Harris to Emerson and Whitman and deals with the American transcendental group link in more detail than Nasgaard.

Both essays are lucidly written, profusely illustrated, and logically argued. Unfortunately, many important parts of the plot are missing. As the foreword indicates, the Art Gallery of Ontario and Hammer Museum’s exhibition The Idea of North: The Paintings of Lawren Harris (2015–16) nearly derailed Higher States (2017). A way was found to go forward: “A Canadian perspective on Harris’s life in the United States seemed all the timelier after The Idea of North aimed to use the eye of American celebrity and art collector Steve Martin to explore the artist’s most iconic Canadian paintings.” The Idea of North, in my opinion, distorts Harris’s career because it plucks him out of context by concentrating only on his best-known paintings of abstract-shaped mountains and icebergs (ca. 1922–30), which, in the judgment of the exhibition’s organizers, are the summit of his modernist achievement. In an attempt to look at the “abstract” Lawren Harris, the essays in Higher State also ignore context by sidestepping the works highlighted in The Idea of North. This results in a further distortion because the complete story is obscured in both cases: The Idea of North’s narrative about Harris as a modern artist is completely different from that in Higher States.

Harris became an abstract artist by gradually making his mountain landscapes more and more abstract. For example, he moved from some abstract shaping in a canvas such as Waterfall, Algoma (1918) to Mountain Forms (ca. 1926), in which the mountain becomes a composite of jagged, upward-thrusting lines of representational and abstract elements. Any account of Harris and abstraction must consider these iconic landscapes. To be fair, three such works are illustrated in the catalogue.

Another significant issue has been jettisoned in Nasgaard’s essay: any treatment of the conflicted relationship between Bertram Brooker and Harris is absent. Although Brooker is mentioned several times, Nasgaard fails to discuss that Harris was intrigued by Brooker’s abstractions and arranged a showing of them in Toronto at the Arts and Letters Club in January 1927. Harris, who was experimenting with abstract forms in his mountain landscapes, obviously looked upon the completely abstract works of Brooker with considerable admiration. However, when Brooker’s work was placed on display, Harris backed down, as an entry in Brooker’s diary of January 24 makes clear: “My pictures went up at the Arts and Letters Club and there was a curious silence around the place. . . . I came away and walked [with Harris] feeling hardened . . . by the experience.” Harris was too embarrassed to discuss the obviously negative criticisms he had heard. Brooker was disappointed, and, in turn, a chagrined Harris postponed his move toward complete abstraction.

Only in about 1936 was Harris able to make that full transition, and at that point Brooker continued to influence him. For example, Harris’s Composition (Abstraction No. 99) (ca. 1938) shows strong similarities to Brooker’s Evolution (1929) in its use of the strong vertical descent from the left side of the canvas. Harris’s incorporation of the two anthropomorphic shapes is quite similar to Brooker’s abstractions from 1928 to 1930. Thanks to Brooker’s impact on Harris’s movement toward complete abstraction, the relationship between the two artists remains a core issue of studies on Harris.

Owens’s essay overemphasizes the influence of American transcendentalism on Harris’s abstractions. He certainly read Emerson and Whitman, but he was also steeped in a wide variety of sources, such as Madame Blavatsky, P. D. Ouspensky, and Wassily Kandinsky. Another important influence is not treated: as a student in Germany in 1906, Harris likely attended the enormous exhibition Ausstellung Deutscher Kunst aus der Zeit von, which included a large selection of Caspar David Friedrich that considerably elevated the German artist’s reputation. In landscapes such as The Monk by the Sea (1910), Friedrich uses many abstract elements to portray the “higher claims” of nature. Harris obviously learned a great deal from the German master’s concept of a mystical landscape that employs abstract passages.

The essays in Higher States are on much firmer ground when they home in on Harris’s membership in the Transcendental Painting Group, especially his interactions with Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram. In fact, both essays could have paid much closer attention to the social interactions within this group and to their shared motivations. The texts tacitly suggest that modernism and abstraction are synonymous terms, whereas modernism takes many different forms of which abstraction is only one. Harris was a modernist artist well before he became an abstract painter. His movement toward complete abstraction is a complex one, and his membership in the Transcendental Painting Group is key in that development, but in its emphasis on “American contemporaries,” Higher States shoves many important issues under the carpet.

James King, FRSC
Professor, Department of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario