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ABSTRACT EXPRESSIONIST PAINTINGS, 1956–1976


This catalogue was published by the Estonian House Art Committee in conjunction with the exhibition Peeter Sepp: Colour My World, Abstract Expressionist Paintings, 1956–1976 Estonian House, 958 Broadview Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada March 26 – April 17, 2016 Curated by Eda Sepp, art historian, and Deeter Hastenteufel, artist Design by Uno Ramat Photography by Peeter Põldre Edited by Tom Sepp and Anita Genua Copy-edited by Martha Campbell The catalogue has been funded by a generous donation from the Estonian Studies Centre, Tartu College Other donations from: the Republic of Estonia, Ministry of Culture; Estonian Arts Centre; Estonian Credit Union, Toronto; EstDocs Documentary Film Festival Toronto


Acknowledgements

We extend our gratitude to the Estonian Studies Centre at Tartu College for their generous funding of this catalogue. In addition the exhibition has been made possible by liberal donations from the Republic of Estonia, Ministry of Culture; the Estonian Arts Centre; and the Estonian Credit Union in Toronto. The accompanying exhibit of Peeter’s work would not be possible without the vision and dedication of the Toronto Estonian House, and most importantly the Estonian House Art Committee. Dr. Peeter Põldre has kindly volunteered his time to drive to Flesherton, Ontario, to photograph the paintings; for this we are grateful. Uno Ramat has been generous with advice, promotional ideas, design and much more. Kristi Sau Doughty has provided much help and advice in addition to her role as treasurer. We thank Tom Sepp and Anita Genua for editing the texts and Martha Campbell for being copy editor. The artist Deeter Hastenteufel, as a true friend of Peeter Sepp, has stored all the paintings for many years, organized the first exhibition with a catalogue of 10 copies and transported the paintings from Flesherton to Toronto with help from artist Nancy Simard. The exhibition would not be possible without their help, in addition to Deeter’s role as co-curator. Many thanks also to Piret Noorhani, Jaan Roos, Maie Ilves, Ingrid Sepp Jaenes, Aivar Jaenes, Sahira Sepp,

Anita Genua and all the volunteers, especially to Peeter Sepp’s widow Anu Sepp who owns the paintings. Organizing the exhibition and writing the catalogue have been exciting experiences for me. In addition to digging up information about the birth of abstraction in Canada, I have read 12 years of The Varsity, University of Toronto’s student newspaper, which at the time when Peeter Sepp attended the School of Architecture was of considerable importance culturally in Canada. For instance, Peter Gzowski was editor of The Varsity when Peeter wrote his first article “P.S. on Jazz.” Many other cultural front-runners received their beginning at The Varsity. Thinking about the Estonian diaspora experience, and Peeter Sepp’s far-reaching influence, I feel that his work should receive even more attention in the future.  ■ — Eda Sepp


Peeter Sepp: the Abstract Expressionist Period

I

n the winter of 1951 Peeter Sepp arrived in Toronto as an immigrant from Sweden, where the family had spent six years, after fleeing Estonia in the wake of the Soviet occupation of 1944. At the young age of 15 Peeter had to begin a new life with a new language and friends for the second time. His arrival in 1950s’ Toronto, after a voyage across the ocean and a long train ride from Halifax, must have been a bleak experience for him, after cosmopolitan Stockholm with its galleries, theatres and concert halls. Many new immigrants found solace by turning inward to their own diasporas, but Peeter, as a mercurial optimist, was firmly active in Canadian society too. As a student at Central Technical School, he was chosen to be a representative for Simpson’s department store, where the first exhibition of abstract paintings in Toronto was held in 1953 in the furniture department and display windows, called “Abstracts at Home.” This may have been Peeter’s first encounter with real New York-style abstract expressionist paintings, especially the work of William Ronald and Harold Town, whose art he came to admire. As a youngster he had always been keenly interested in art to the extent that he had private access, after-hours, to the whole art department at Humberside Collegiate Institute in Toronto. Peeter’s intellectual interests, however, began much earlier. His closest role model already in Stockholm

was his brother Reino, nine years older, whose circle of friends included most of the avant-garde Estonian intellectuals in Sweden at the time. A close friend of Reino, when Peeter was still in public school, was Ilmar Laaban (1921–2000), Estonia’s first Surrealist poet, jazz pianist, art critic, producer of sound poetry, with connections all over Europe. Through Laaban’s influence Peeter received an interest in avant-garde movements beyond his age, as well as a keen interest in jazz music. It is not known when Peeter Sepp entered the School of Architecture at the University of Toronto, but his first article “P.S. on Jazz” appeared in the student newspaper on December 13, 1956.1 This started his close association with The Varsity, where his column reviewing jazz records and discussing jazz events in Toronto, appeared during the following years. Many of the newest art exhibitions as well as the openings of new avant-garde galleries were discussed in The Varsity. Sepp’s first large-scale abstract expressionist painting in mixed media on masonite, Mandamus, is dated 1956. He designed posters and publications, some for The Coffee House restaurant, designed issues of The Varsity, and was a member of the Hart House Music Committee.2 His main interests at the time were visual art and jazz music, but he participated actively in events of the Estonian diaspora, designing publications and inspiring younger members of the


Association of Estonian Students at the University of Toronto. At the same time he continued painting abstractions throughout the ’50s; many are now in private collections. The collection of paintings at this exhibition does not reflect Peeter Sepp’s whole development. They make up what was left when Peeter had to move from his Broadview Avenue studio. He transported the paintings to Deeter Hastenteufel’s studio in Flesherton, Ontario, and promised to retrieve them later. However, he died suddenly and prematurely in Estonia in 2007. The paintings have been in storage until now. In the spring of 2015, perhaps to commemorate Peeter Sepp’s 80th birthday, his friend and fellow artist, Deeter Hastenteufel, organized a retrospective exhibition at the Press Gallery in Collingwood, Ontario, of all 28 of Sepp’s paintings in his collection. He photographed the paintings and produced a catalogue of 10 copies with the works titled and in chronological order. Peeter had dated and named the paintings (probably using a Latin dictionary) before moving them to Flesherton. The catalogue by Deeter Hastenteufel and the exhibition in Collingwood have been valuable sources for my present work. I saw the excellent exhibition and realized that it could be the last and probably only time when such a body of Sepp’s work, representing his whole abstract expressionist period

from beginning to end, would be shown together. This inspired me to organize the present exhibition at the Estonian House in Toronto to let the members of the local Estonian diaspora view the exhibition and Canadian art specialists evaluate the works against what was done in Toronto from the middle ’50s to about 1976. Peeter Sepp was perhaps the only artist in the Estonian diaspora in Canada whose works were created at the same time and were equal in quality to what was produced in Ontario, one of the three main centres of the birth of post-Second World War abstract art in Canada. In an interview in 1977 Sepp claimed that during the late 1950s he “frequented openings of art shows at the newer experimental Toronto galleries and admired the juicy, strong, bold colours of Bill Ronald, the art of Graham Coughtry, Michael Snow and the early works of Harold Town, to name a few.” 3 His familiarity with the Toronto art scene was probably a factor for his getting the position of Visual Arts Officer at the Ontario Arts Council in 1970. During the early 1950s, Toronto was still dominated by academic attitudes formed by the realist styles of the Group of Seven from the 1920s and the Canadian Group of Painters from the 1930s. There were no avenues for the younger generation of artists, who were experimenting with newer styles, to show their


Peeter Sepp: the Abstract Expressionist Period

modernist works, and no galleries that would support them. The very first group of artists, Painters Eleven, to paint abstract works was formed in 1953.4 In an interview in 1977, Peeter Sepp singled out two artists of this group, Harold Town and William Ronald, whose work he had admired and that inspired him. The first exhibitions in Toronto by the Painters Eleven were held at the Roberts Gallery in 1954 and 1955. Later several artists of the group, either singly or together, had exhibits at the Hart House Gallery of the University of Toronto while Sepp was a student at the university. These and events at other new avant-garde galleries were often discussed in The Varsity where Peeter Sepp was then writing articles on jazz. Coughtry and Snow, whom Peeter mentioned in the interview, had their first two-man show at the Hart House Gallery during January 1955. The exhibition created a scandal when the then mayor of Toronto, Nathan Phillips, publicly accused Graham Coughtry of showing obscene works. Coughtry exhibited nude figures within abstractions, which were to be his later trademarks. The Varsity was critical of the mayor’s comments and quoted Coughtry’s answer: “To me there is nothing ‘dirty’ in this painting. I think the human body is a beautiful thing.”5 Coughtry may have inspired Peeter Sepp to use abstracted human forms in erotic poses several times in his paintings during the ’70s.

Three examples at the present exhibition are Muskoka, Quo Vadis and Lindanisa. Both Snow and Coughtry were expert jazz musicians and hence important role models for Peeter Sepp, who was mainly known as jazz critic at The Varsity during the ’50s. Sepp has said that at the time, when he was jazz critic, he discussed improvisation and jazz expression with musicians and composers, and jazz music continued to be a constant companion to him, and inspiration for his abstract canvases. Jazz was an inspiration for many Canadian and American abstract artists at the time, but Michael Snow’s statement made in 1955 and published in The Varsity in connection with the Hart House exhibition, warrants to be to be quoted here: My jazz interests are related to my painting, not in the end result, but in the procedure of working out a painting. In both one starts with a theme and through improvisation and organization one places his personal stamp on the work. Although the process is free from rules, after it is born, I expect it to be a statement, something one can stand on, not just a helter-skelter salt and pepper effect… actually all I want to do is present some kind of moving image using all the contents of painting, colour, line, texture, form. It must end up being an object which rewards, invites, provokes contemplation, awareness… A painting is a small experience in


feeling and thinking, that is, living. It can be gay, sad, evil, sexy, soothing, but in that it is, it must be human. Like a person, there are many facets of its personality that are provocatively hidden.6 This statement also applies to all Peeter Sepp’s abstract expressionist paintings. Jazz music always accompanied his painting. He didn’t copy other artists or external objects. His inspiration came from within, from his unconscious feelings, which received their colour and form by listening to jazz music. Although the idea of abstraction in art as being derived from the unconscious had its ultimate roots in Surrealism, by the 1950s it was common knowledge and was discussed widely in art circles everywhere. A more direct source for Sepp, however, could have been the Surrealist friend of his brother, Ilmar Laaban, in Sweden. The large, monumental, organic colour forms of Peeter Sepp’s canvases have been created with sweeping, powerful brush strokes, resulting in dynamic compositions, which seem to have surged forth from the unconsciousness. A dynamic, liberating optimism characterizes all his art from 1956 to the end of the ’70s. Sepp used large, flat fields of colour, often with thinly applied liquid paint, close to the picture plane and with shallow depth, which is related to the American theorist-critic Clement Greenberg’s term “post-painterly abstraction” and is characteristic of abstract expres-

sionism of the time. The loose, energetic brush strokes with drips and splashes, experimentation with new materials in paint and canvas, characterize Peeter Sepp’s abstract expressionist period and tie him to the whole abstract movement as discussed by Denise Leclerc.7 His paintings are large in size, he often used masonite instead of stretched canvases, applied paint with large house-paint brushes which left visible strokes. Paint was sometimes poured directly on the canvas or squeezed from the tube, allowed to drip and leave visible marks and patterns. For added effect pallette knives, sticks, any sharp or flat objects were used in addition to brushes. In Leclerc’s words, this all changed the artists’ body movements from the wrist to the forearm and created different results in their works during the abstract expressionist period. For anybody interested in what happened in avantgarde art in Toronto between 1955 and 1991, Avrom Isaacs’ gallery is an important source. His Greenwich Gallery (later called Isaacs Gallery) was initially opened in 1955 and was the first to represent younger abstract expressionist artists, like Coughtry and Snow. Isaacs’ gallery was often discussed in The Varsity. Besides paintings Isaacs also hosted poetry readings, experimental music performances and film screenings at the gallery. As a student of architecture, with intense interest in art and music, Peeter Sepp was hungrily


Peeter Sepp: the Abstract Expressionist Period

absorbing new experimental aspects of the Toronto art scene. He visited the new galleries regularly and also mapped them out to me when I began my studies of art history at the University of Toronto during the 1960s. He singled out Isaacs Gallery, then already on Yonge Street, as being the most interesting and innovative. Av Isaacs was always friendly and discussed his shows and recent art trends. During the ’60s, after discussing one of his exhibitions, he asked me if I, with the surname Sepp (Smith in Estonian), was related to Peeter Sepp. He said he had been interested in Peeter’s art and would have liked to exhibit his paintings at the gallery, but unfortunately Peeter never painted enough for a show. This was Peeter’s tragedy as a painter. He was too busy doing many different things, including being an active member of the Estonian diaspora. In 1970 Peeter Sepp began his position at the Ontario Arts Council as Visual Arts Officer, where he developed grant programs to assist visual arts organizations and individual artists throughout Ontario. In this context his name became known throughout art circles as an organizer who was always willing to help. While there he created a special project called artario 72, where a kit of 20 art multiples by well-known Ontario artists — prints and sculptures — was published in an edition of 500, complete with pop-up display stands, study guides and multiple-order catalogues, to be distributed in art

galleries, schools, libraries, government offices, jails and homes, and later sold for less than $15 each. This was his first project of democratization of art and “art for the people” which was to occupy his interests throughout his life. The idea was to make art available to the general public as cheaply as possible, and to teach the public that good art need not be expensive and unavailable. Another similar project was Edition 1. Very important for Peeter Sepp’s development were the ideas of John Cage and Alfred Korzybski’s semantic theories.8 John Cage’s writings, especially The Indeterminacy Lectures, influenced him considerably. Democratization of art, freedom of concepts, washing away preconceptions and breaking away from labels were, according to Sepp, derived from John Cage. In his theory of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski says the meaning of words (or other symbols) is not in the words, but in our semantic reactions.9 The word as a semantic symbol is hence not the same as what it is trying to symbolize and ultimately there is not a single or correct way to express something like an unconscious feeling or idea that has not been verbalized yet. Abstract painters like to express inner non-verbalized thoughts in colours and forms rather than words, and the viewer, by looking at the painting, may grasp a feeling from the work. For Korzybski every way of abstracting produces its own kind of truth. Sepp said that the ideas of John


Cage and Alfred Korzybski have helped to free him from “restrictions of preconceptions” and resulted in “a compulsion to create on the edge of label-making with visual forms and ideas.” Peeter Sepp’s involvement with abstract expressionism ended in 1976. His next period began in 1977 with an exhibition of drawings called Alchemy to the People, an Exhibition of Post-Formalist ‘Cartoons’ at the Northern Branch library on Orchard View Boulevard. The cartoons featured a character with round face, an optimistic smile and phantom-like spectacles, wearing a striped shirt, but no pants, and walking, standing, thinking, talking. The similarity of the cartoon figures with Peeter Sepp himself produced an autobiographical aspect to the exhibition. He has later referred to himself as “the cartoonist-philosopher” and by calling the style “Post-Formalist,” thus distanced himself from what he called “Clement Greenberg’s restrictive term post-painterly abstraction.” Peeter Sepp exhibited his paintings at group shows in the Estonian diaspora, but before the 1980s, during his abstract expressionist period, he never exhibited them in Toronto galleries. Therefore his works were not widely known in the local art scene. He participated in many Estonian activities as an organizer, adviser, activist and generator of ideas. After the 1980s he was involved with films, improvisational telecommunications

of music, media art and Finno-Ugric culture. The 28 paintings stored in Deeter Hastenteufel’s studio are all that remains of his abstract expressionist period, and show him as a partner, both artistically and time-wise, with the birth of abstract expressionism in Canada. The present article is only a short introduction to Peeter Sepp’s development as a painter of abstract works between 1956 and 1976, and represents a limited period of his output. This article and the present exhibition were inspired by the body of work that Deeter Hastenteufel safeguarded and the exhibition he organized at the Press Gallery in Collingwood in April 2015. Peeter Sepp’s documents are now stored in the archives of Estonian Studies Centre at Tartu College in Toronto.  ■ — Eda Sepp 1. The first “P.S. on Jazz” appeared in The Varsity on December 1956. I would like to thank Zoe Weber of the University of Toronto Archives who directed me to The Varsity archives. In 1956–57 Peter Gzowski was editor of The Varsity. 2. See “Peeter Sepp,” in Profiles, Estonian Architects in Canada, pp. 142–146. 3. Interview with Eda Sepp in September 1977. 4. See Burnett, David and Schiff, Marilyn. Contemporary Canadian Art. Toronto, 1983, pp. 42–43; and Leclerc, Denise. The Crisis of Abstraction in Canada: The 1950s. National Gallery of Canada. Ottawa, 1993, pp. 57–62. 5. See The Varsity, Jan. 10, 1955. 6. Griegeroff, Alex K. The Varsity, Jan. 11, 1955, pp. 1 and 4. 7. Leclerc. op. cit. pg. 37. 8. Eda Sepp, interview, op. cit. 9. Quoted in S. I. Hayakawa. Symbol, Status and Personality. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1958. Peeter Sepp gave me this book with his dedicatory drawing when I was interviewing him in 1977. (Hayakawa is a student of Korzybski’s general semantics.)


PAINTINGS


Mandamus (We Command). 1956. Mixed media on masonite, 121.9 Ă— 91.4 cm


Delectare. 1960. Mixed media on canvas. 96.5 Ă— 121.9 cm


Guadere. 1964. Mixed media on masonite. 81.3 Ă— 121.9 cm


Gestura. 1966. Mixed media on masonite. 96.5 Ă— 121.9 cm


Gemini. 1966. Mixed media on masonite, 121.9 Ă— 96.5 cm


Duplicatus. 1966. Mixed media on masonite, 121.9 Ă— 96.5 cm


Trillix. 1967. Mixed media on masonite, 142.2 Ă— 121.9 cm


Sanctus. 1967. Mixed media on masonite, 121.9 Ă— 81.3 cm


Sanctus #II. 1967. Mixed media on masonite, 121.9 Ă— 81.3 cm


Mana. 1967. Mixed media on masonite. 81.9 Ă— 121.9 cm


Telesma. 1970. Mixed media on masonite. 81.9 Ă— 121.9 cm


Gemini Blue. 1970. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 86.4 cm


Justus. 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 101.6 Ă— 121.9 cm


Locus. 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 114.3 × 121.9 cm


In Excelsius. 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 Ă— 91.4 cm


Qualitsas. 1973. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 132.1 cm


Floss Floris. 1973. Mixed media on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 101.6 cm


Serra d’Alto. 1973. Mixed media on canvas. 121.9 × 167.6 cm


Fluvialis. 1974. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 142.2 cm


Fluxus. 1974. Mixed media on canvas. 142.2 Ă— 106.7 cm


Gloria. 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 121.9 Ă— 91.4 cm


Rubidus. 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 143.5 Ă— 137.2 cm


Conventus. 1974. Mixed media on canvas. 116.8 Ă— 116.8 cm


Solstitium. 1974. Acrylic on canvas. 137.2 Ă— 121.9 cm


Muskoka. 1975. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 182.9 cm


Quo Vadis. 1976. Mixed media on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 132.1 cm


Lindanisa. 1976. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 167.6 cm


Tabula Rasa. 1976. Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 Ă— 142.2 cm


Peeter Sepp, 1935–2007


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Peeter Sepp Colour My World catalog  

Catalogue accompanying the art exhibit title "Colour My World," showcasing the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Estonian-Canadian artist...

Peeter Sepp Colour My World catalog  

Catalogue accompanying the art exhibit title "Colour My World," showcasing the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Estonian-Canadian artist...

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