LOT 107

1885 - 1970

Abstract Sketch in Oil #41
oil on board
signed and on verso titled on various labels, dated 1934 - 1938 on the Bess Harris label, inscribed "69-27" and "7" and stamped Lawren Harris LSH Holdings Ltd. 41 (partially obscured)
22 x 18 in, 55.9 x 45.7 cm

Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000 CAD

Sold for: $115,250

Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave

Estate of the Artist
By descent to the present Private Collection

Lawren S. Harris, “Modern Art and Aesthetic Reactions: An Appreciation,” Canadian Forum, vol. 7, no. 80, May 1927, pages 239 - 241
Roald Nasgaard and Gwendolyn Owens, Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, 2017, reproduced pages 111 and 178

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

It is a jaunty painting, self-confident and bold, and conceived in high spirits. At the same time, when Lawren Harris chose to pivot the image on a centrally dominant, upward-thrusting wedge of ethereal blue sky reaching towards a lustrous sun, he betokened aspirations lofty and transcendent.

I first learned of this painting from a photograph that arrived by e-mail during the final stages of organizing Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, an exhibition that ran at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg and the Glenbow Museum in Calgary during 2017 to 2018. I am usually reluctant to accept anything for an exhibition that I have not seen for myself, but this work not only came with a trustworthy recommendation but it also rang all the right bells. When it then arrived at the McMichael, what an essential addition to the exhibition it turned out to be, in the ways in which its weird geometries, its erratic spaces and its soaring mood all resonated with the other pictures it would hang alongside, and in how it enriched altogether our perception of Harris’s abstraction.

We know that in his own studio practice, Harris did not turn his back on landscape painting until after he had decamped from Toronto in 1934 for Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Here he served as artist-in-residence until 1938, when he resettled in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Leaving Canada served to release him from his Group of Seven-based obligations to the northern wilderness. The library and art collections of Dartmouth College, along with regular trips to New York City, also immersed him in the most up-to-date international abstract art, Art Deco architecture, industrial design and photography — visual stimuli that he avidly absorbed and incorporated into his own work.

But we also know that intellectually Harris had already become engaged with abstraction in 1926, when the formidable Katherine Dreier invited him to participate in her upcoming blockbuster Société Anonyme exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. In this show, which was primarily dedicated to the promotion of abstract art, Harris (with a landscape painting) found himself sharing gallery walls with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian.

The next year, Harris was instrumental in bringing the Société Anonyme exhibition to Toronto, a city then mostly hostile to anything abstract. On this occasion he also published a remarkable review of the show, “Modern Art and Aesthetic Reactions: An Appreciation,” in which he defended abstraction and described the abstract paintings in the show - those that he thought the best - in words that foretell the look of Abstract Sketch in Oil #41, executed some ten years later. (The title is generic: Harris rarely named his paintings or dated them.)

In the 1927 article, Harris marvels at how abstract paintings that at first glance appeared flat, when you looked at them again, could “unfold the experience of infinite space.” If some of the works looked mathematical, or as if they were drawn using “the engineering draughtsman’s instruments,” there was nothing cold about this. On the contrary, their “precision and concentration of feeling” made them emotional, living works “capable of inspiring lofty experiences” and “spiritual ideas.”

Can we imagine that, having such thoughts in mind when he conceived Abstract Sketch in Oil #41, Harris set out to stage just these kinds of enticing visual ambivalences that abstraction made possible, and that would have been unthinkable in landscape painting? Flat planes slide into infinite depth; shapes that are opaque at one moment, in the next open into transparency; circles that here define coloured discs, over there are modeled into three-dimensional orbs palpable enough that we may imagine seeing behind them. Altogether, things dance buoyantly. Harris’s theosophical beliefs should have led him to depict states of universal unity and spiritual harmony, yet there is little here that is still or solemn. Harris’s spiritual imagination was evidently a vivid and lively place.

We thank Roald Nasgaard, co-author of Higher States: Lawren Harris and His American Contemporaries, for contributing the above essay.

Estimate: $70,000 - $90,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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