Artwork by Lawren Stewart Harris,  Untitled (Abstract Painting #173), circa 1958

Lawren Harris
Untitled (Abstract Painting #173), circa 1958

oil on canvas
numbered 173 upon the “Lawren Harris LSH Holdings Ltd.” stamp on the reverse and inscribed (twice) “F106”
65 x 42 in ( 165.1 x 106.7 cm )

Auction Estimate: $400,000.00$300,000.00 - $400,000.00

Price Realized $504,000.00
Sale date: May 30th 2024

Estate of the Artist
LSH Holdings Limited, Vancouver
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
"Lawren Harris Retrospective Exhibiton", National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; travelling to Vancouver Art Gallery, 7 June-8 September, 1963, no. 68 as "1958-62"
"Canadian Group of Painters", Art Gallery of Toronto; travelling to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 10 November-9 December, 1962, no. 12
"Atma Buddhi Manas: The Later Work of Lawren S. Harris", Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to the Vancouver Art Gallery; Winnipeg Art Gallery and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, 27 September 1985-13 July 1986, no. 76
Lawren Harris, 'Creative Art and Canada', "Yearbook, of the Arts in Canada, 1928-1929", Toronto, 1929, page 85
Bess Harris and R.G.P. Colgrove (ed.), "Lawren Harris", Toronto, 1969, pages 18 and 109
Dennis Reid, "Atma Buddhi Manas: The Later Work of Lawren S. Harris", Toronto, 1985, no. 76, reproduced page 99
Roald Nasgaard, "Abstract Painting in Canada", Vancouver/Toronto, 2008, page 37, reproduced page 36
Paul Duval, "Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings", Toronto, 2011, page 23
James King, "The Life of Lawren Harris: Inward Journey", Toronto, 2012, pages 99 and 309
Roald Nasgaard, 'Harris’s Modernity', in "Higher States: Lawren Harris and his American Contemporaries", Kleinburg, 2017, page 97
I hadn’t seen the generically titled "Untitled (Abstract Painting #173)" for some twenty years except in reproduction, so it was a delight to rediscover how dazzling it is in real life. And dazzling it is with its palette of gorgeous colours-rust red, lemon yellows and oranges, its tans and browns, and its azures–and its crisp drawing that darts about, sometimes with lightning speed. It’s abstract, of course, at least in the sense that it doesn’t depict worldly things. But it’s also a figure- ground painting, with a kind of construction rising in the middle of its composition and set against a dappled blue ground that may be read as light glistening off the waves of the ocean, or as a wispily clouded sky. Or maybe it’s just abstract.

But what is that image-thing in the middle? It’s a powerful presence, free and spirited. But it is also more than a little weird. It’s full of vitality, but it’s not really organic. The drawing is more geometric than biomorphic. It’s not flat nor in the round, but more like a kind of crazed relief. It’s amorphous, sprawling outside its edges, but at the same time it holds itself tight. Here it’s gaseous, and there hard-edged. But for all purposes, it is weightless. It’s finally not a body but a vision revealed to us only for that fixed moment when the camera shutter button is pressed. Before and beyond, it is eternally fluid and dynamic.

If we ask “what does this all mean?” Harris warned us against interpretation, at least in any literary way. That’s the wrong question, he insisted, when in 1948, some ten years earlier, he talked to the art historian Paul Duval. The right question to ask, as Harris admonished, is rather “What experience does it contain?” A work of art is not a text to be read, but “a state of mind” that can “only be participated in, or experienced.” What resonance within our minds and bodies can this particular abstract configuration of colour and form arouse?

So what can we say about Harris’s use of abstraction in "#173", about his commitment to figure-ground relations and spatial illusion? When he executed "#173" at the end of the 1950s, abstraction on the larger North American stage saw the emergence of Colour Field painting which emphatically proscribed the depiction of space and emphasized painting’s obligation to affirm the flatness of its canvas support. This was the direction that in Toronto, the two-decades-plus younger Jack Bush was then taking. And Colour Field painting, as it was being promoted, if sometimes dogmatically, by the critic Clement Greenberg, was understood to be the next inevitable step in the Modernist abstract art’s trajectory that ran its evolutionary line from Impressionism, through Cézanne, Cubism, Mondrian, Abstract Expressionism and forwards. But powerful as this narrative was for a time, it was also incomplete and exclusionary, and only one of the other possible storylines about the development of abstraction. It was also essentially a secular story, whereas when Harris pursued his own path of discovery and made his particular formal choices, central to his quest was a search for transcendent expressiveness.

Harris may not in his own work have fully tackled abstraction until the mid-1930s. But already as early as the mid-1920s, he had become Toronto’s leading promoter of abstract art. He played a key role in 1927, bringing to the Art Gallery of Toronto the "International Exhibition of Modern Art", an exhibition organized by the Société Anonyme in New York for the Brooklyn Museum, and devoted to the newest abstract art in all its international manifestations. Harris’s review of the Art Gallery of Toronto exhibition in the "Journal Canadian Forum" included a reproduction of a recent Mondrian painting. And both before and in the wake of the exhibition, Harris was at the centre of local discussions about abstraction and its critical, theoretical, and spiritual implications for the Canadian context. In an essay in the "Yearbook of the Arts in Canada, 1928-1916" he even seemed to foresee how all this could be translated into action: “To-day,” he writes, “the artist moves toward purer creative expression, wherein he changes the outward aspect of nature, alters colours, and, by changing and re-shaping forms, intensifies the austerity and beauty of formal relationships.” In so doing, “he comes appreciably nearer a pure work of art and the expression of new spiritual values.”

So intellectually, Harris had done his critical homework. But how, in practice, to make abstraction his own was another problem, especially given his profound commitment, which he shared with his Group of Seven fellows, to a nationalist program devoted to depicting the northern landscape. As late as 1930 he wrote to Emily Carr about this after a trip across the Atlantic explaining how, while abstract painting is now “somewhat natural to Europe,” we in Canada still cannot do without representation “because it provides a home for the spirit — and we sensed the spirit first and always through the life and forms of nature.”

Such nationalistic constraints fell away when, due to social indiscretions, he was forced to leave Toronto in 1934, moving to Hanover, New Hampshire, where he assumed a position of artist-in- residence at Dartmouth College. The school library was thoroughly up-to-date on modern art, with portfolios of Kandinsky prints, and Hanover was in easy reach of New York where he saw essentially every major exhibition at MoMA and the Whitney Museum and at the major commercial galleries in New York, exhibitions that would have included a great deal of geometric abstraction.

Harris’s own first ventures into abstract paintings had their own visionary quirkiness and would little resemble what he saw in New York. It was more a matter of finding his own way on his own terms. But even so, of the major options available, it would be Wassily Kandinsky, rather than Piet Mondrian, who became his more useful model. Given Harris’s own Theosophical bent, both could have appealed because that was how philosophically both Europeans explained their work. But whereas Mondrian insisted on pure geometry and resolute flatness, Kandinsky kept a more fluid attitude to pictorial space and inhabited his paintings with shapes and colours resonant with symbolic intent; i.e., consonant with the pictorial mode that will govern Harris’s work up to and including "#173". Opting for Kandinsky’s way made Harris a sympathetic fit in Santa Fe, where he moved in 1938, and was central to his becoming a founding member of the Transcendental Painting Group.

Theosophy and other transcendental literature had been central to Harris’s creative milieu since Toronto days in the 1920s in the company of such pioneer explorers of abstract art as Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn. Lasting visual influence came from Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater’s "Thought Forms", 1905, in which the authors sought to illustrate their mystical visions of individual composers’ music depicting them as colourful, cloud-like emanations that emerge from the towers of gothic country churches to unfold splendidly up in the sky. A great number of Harris’s Santa Fe paintings harken back to these "Thought Forms" illustrations, but his interest in them had surfaced even earlier, in discussions back at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, where they were, on occasion, the subject of mirth. A cartoon by Arthur Lismer, "July the 4th Dimension", probably made around the time of Harris’s departure for Hanover, shows Harris performing a celebratory dance in the presence of a Fourth of July fireworks display made up of a riot of stars, triangles, and numbers. Lismer’s drawing is blatantly a spoof of a Besant “thought form” image, in this case of Charles Gounod’s music, Lismer launching his upwards from an Eastern mosque rather than a Gothic church, no doubt to quip on Theosophy’s interest in eastern religions.

And thus we have it, the underlying format of Harris’s highly ambitious paintings of the late 1930s and forwards, through to "#173" in the late 1950s: Theosophical “thought forms” hovering over or against boundless land, sea or skyscapes. In Santa Fe they rise up like enigmatic heraldic constructions built with ambiguously emblematic shape and volumes. They are designed geometrically with industrial precision and animated with Art Deco speed lines and bright discs that flash like traffic lights. They are high-spirited and moderne, and unlike the work of some of his Transcendentalist fellows, clear-eyed and unsullied by sentiment.

Harris returned to Canada in 1939 and settled in Vancouver. The city had its own strong Theosophical and mystical history and the painter Jock Macdonald, who had arrived from Scotland in 1926, was well versed in Kandinsky, voicing the latter’s contention that colour harmonies could be constructed on their own terms without needing to copy nature. Macdonald was no doubt also instrumental in introducing Harris to Surrealist automatic writing, a technique which he learned to practice without feeling any compulsion to modify his spontaneously produced drawings into defined shapes or readable imagery.

This is the formal realm of "#173", with the deep space of the Santa Fe paintings diminished and the symbolic imagery foregone. What rules instead is a fast and jagged drawing style and high-keyed colours that resonate independently of form, all unavailable to textual analysis: a celebratory envisaging of an ethereal insight some transcendent universe. Even so, may we not intuit reminiscences of Harris the long- ago landscape painter? The sea and the sky? Dazzling sunlight and deep blue darkness, fall colours and light snow? As Harris strives to be otherworldly and to use his art for spiritual revelation, he does not address us from a space of mystical darkness, but wants us to partake open-eyed in the clear light of day.

We extend our thanks to Roald Nasgaard for contributing the preceding essay. Roald is the author of the critically acclaimed "Abstract Painting in Canada". His exhibitions and accompanying books dedicated to Canadian abstraction include "Yves Gaucher: A Fifteen-Year Perspective 1963-1978", "The Automatiste Revolution: Montreal 1941–1960" and "The Plasticiens and Beyond: Montreal 1955–1970".
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Lawren Stewart Harris
(1885 - 1970) Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters

Lawren Harris was born in Brantford, Ontario and at the age of 19 went to Berlin for academic training. His first two years included study in pencil, charcoal and watercolours. He took instruction in the studio mornings, out-of-doors sketching in the slums of Berlin afternoons, and sketching figures in the studio evenings in watercolour and drawing media. His last two years were spent in the study of portraits and figures in oils. Two of his teachers were Mr. Wille and Mr. Schlabitz. Schlabitz accompanied him in the summer on a walking tour of the Austrian Tyrol where Harris did some sketching. After his study in Germany Harris travelled in Palestine and Arabia with Norman Duncan where he did illustrations. He then visited lumber camps in Minnesota where he made illustrations for Harper’s magazine.

By 1910 Harris was back in Toronto where he saw everything with fresh eyes. His work had more vigour and sensitivity to colour and form. His first studio was located over Giles grocery store, north of Bloor and Yonge Streets. His attraction for the poorer areas of town gained him the reputation of socialist painter. His “house portraits” brought a storm of criticism against him. In Toronto the Arts and Letters Club had been formed only two years before Harris’ return and it was not long before he was an active member. It was at the Arts and Letters Club that Harris first saw the attractive sketches of J.E.H. MacDonald in 1911. Harris and MacDonald became good friends and shared an appreciation of the arts in depth. They visited Buffalo together in January of 1913 to see the exhibition of Scandinavian art which had been reviewed in art magazines. This exhibition made a deep impression on both artists. Harris took sketching trips with MacDonald in 1912 at Mattawa and Timiskaming and in 1913 they went to the Laurentians. Harris met other artists at the Arts and Letters Club. Many of them like MacDonald were working for the Grip Engraving Company as commercial artists.

In 1914 Harris and Dr. James MacCallum conceived the idea of building a studio building which could accommodate Canadian artists of ability who could devote their full attentions to painting, free from the pressures of commercialism. Many Canadian artists were drifting south to the U.S. and it was Harris’ and MacCallum’s hope that such a plan would prevent the loss of all of Canada’s most talented painters. Harris was well off through his connection with Massey-Harris (his grandfather was a founder of the firm) and so was Dr. MacCallum. They realized their plan and the Studio Building was erected on Severn Street in Toronto.

Harris became the driving force behind the Group of Seven. A.Y. Jackson claimed: "Without Harris there would have been no Group of Seven. He provided the stimulus; it was he who encouraged us always to take the bolder course, to find new trails." By 1918 Lawren Harris had travelled to the Algoma region in the company of MacDonald and Johnston. In 1920 they held an exhibition at the Art Museum of Toronto (Art Gallery of Ontario). Harris wrote “The group of seven artists whose pictures are here exhibited have for several years held a like vision concerning art in Canada. They are all imbued with the idea that an art must grow and flower in the land before the country will be a real home for its people…” Harris made his first trip to the North Shore of Lake Superior in 1921.

His search for a deeper spiritual meaning eventually took him to the stark landscapes of the far north. By the late 1920s the artist's work strove to capture the spiritual essence of the bold landforms of the Rockies and the Arctic. Throughout the ensuing decade Harris continued to simplify and abstract his landscapes until his subjects became non-representational. Lawren Harris worked as a member of the Transcendental Group of Painters in Santa Fe, New Mexico for two years, returning to Canada in 1940 and settling in Vancouver for the remainder of his lifetime.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979