LOT 128

1885 - 1970

oil on canvas, circa 1936
on verso titled
35 1/2 x 29 in, 90.2 x 73.7 cm

Estimate: $150,000 - $250,000 CAD

Sold for: $277,250

Preview at:

By descent within the family of the Artist

Andrew Hunter, Lawren Stewart Harris: A Painter’s Progress, Americas Society, 2000, reproduced figure 34, page 52
Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens, Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2017, pages 83 and 84, reproduced page 82

McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, February 4 – September 4, 2017, traveling in 2017 – 2018 to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto

Lawren Harris’s abstract works from the mid-1930s are remarkable for their clarity and assuredness, with strong forms and purposeful palettes. LSH 89A is an exemplar: a fully realized canvas, it is one of several crystalline examples from this period demonstrating a distinctive style, easily recognizable and unique to the artist. It stands alongside similar works such as LSH 89B (sold by Heffel in May 2017, lot 42) and Composition 10 (sold by Heffel in November 2017, lot 39) as emphatic statements from an artist who wholly embraced modernity.

What is noteworthy about the conviction of these works is how swiftly and completely Harris had made a transition from representational landscape works to non-representational abstract painting. In the mid-1930s, Harris went through two massive changes in his life. The first was personal, when he moved in 1934 from Toronto to New Hampshire with his new wife, Bess. The second was artistic, as he moved away from the landscape approach he had developed over 20 years, and which had recently culminated in some of the most successful and impactful canvases yet—iconic works depicting the Rocky Mountains, Lake Superior and the Arctic. Harris became disillusioned with these subjects and shifted abruptly to a full commitment to non-representational abstraction. While Harris’s time in the United States was cut short by World War II (he moved back to Canada in 1940, settling in Vancouver, where he remained for three decades), his transition to abstraction was much more permanent—it became his main artistic focus for the rest of his life.

Although Harris had experimented with abstraction as early as 1928 (e.g., Figures with Rays of Light, in the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario), not until his move to the United States did he embrace the change in direction and the opportunities that it now provided. This freedom was welcome and necessary, as he wrote in a letter to Emily Carr in 1936: “For me, there is for the present no other way. I had as you know come to a complete full stop. The end, both in painting and in life. The new opportunity means new life and a new way of life and a new outlook and new adventure.”

The consideration Harris gave this new approach was diligent and thorough, and when he finally was ready to commit to it, he approached it with an enthusiasm and awareness formed through his knowledge of and exposure to modern art. By the mid-1930s, Harris had developed a long association with Katherine Dreier and New York’s Société Anonyme. In 1926, he had been invited to exhibit his landscapes with the Société Anonyme in Brooklyn, and he was instrumental in championing a show of modern works from the society’s collection at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1927, which was the first exhibition of abstract art in Canada. Harris’s appreciation of and commitment to modern art was well in place long before he fully embraced his own creative exploration of its potential, and it served him well. When he was finally ready to move beyond a focus on the Canadian landscape (perhaps sensing a conclusion to, or satisfaction of his nationalist ambitions that had driven the Group of Seven), his explorations of new ideas and forms already seemed comfortable and convincing.

LSH 89A emphasizes geometric forms arranged in planes of space, tangible and inviting. The centre of the image features the suggestion of a gossamer barrier between the viewer and the space beyond, drawing the audience in to explore the work in three dimensions. The delicate palette of earthy warm reds and yellows and ethereal blues and whites is characteristic of many of the artist’s works from this period, and it draws directly from his mountain works of the late 1920s (such as Mount Robson and Mount Lefroy, both in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection). His exploration of a newly available language is decidedly his own, but informed by years of thought, engagement and preparation.

Writing to Carr around the time of this work, Harris expressed an obvious enthusiasm for his new path: “At the present I am engrossed in the abstract way and ideas flow, and it looks as though it would take the rest of my days to catch up with them.” Indeed, this proved to be prophetic, since LSH 89A represents an early accomplishment in what would become almost three decades of constant reinvention and evolution for Harris that were almost entirely focused on purely abstract painting.

We thank Alec Blair, Director/Lead Researcher, Lawren S. Harris Inventory Project, for contributing the above essay.

Estimate: $150,000 - $250,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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