Jack Reppen pulls double duty as a cartoonist and a "serious" artist.
Befuddled by the display of modern abstract art at the Ontario Society of Artists’ 90th annual exhibition in the spring of 1962, an angry letter-writer under the pen name of “Disillusioned” wrote to the Star (April 30, 1962). “I thought I would be able to determine good from bad and at least understand the paintings,” the letter read. “I was wrong, Not only were the paintings incomprehensible, but the titles given them were just as vague. With the odd exception it was a meaningless collection of garbage.”
Jack Reppen’s abstract painting Tejido Pared was awarded the W.H. Baxter Award for the best painting in the show. “In keeping with this ridiculous display was the judges’ decision for first prize,” the letter-writer concluded. “The winning painting was done by a member of The Star staff, Jack Reppen, who should stick to cartoons.” The letter-writer’s assessment said more about the public’s challenge with abstract art, however, than it did of Reppen’s standing in the art world.
Although not widely remembered today, Reppen pulled triple duty as an artist in the late 1950s and early 1960s: as a cartoonist best-known for lampooning the sports and entertainment worlds, a muralist accepting corporate commissions, and a painter whose mixed-media abstract work was celebrated by critics.
Reppen, critic Elizabeth Kilbourn wrote in the Star (June 6, 1964), “was an evocative, expressive artist, capable of creating works of sometimes surrealist intensity.” But the prodigious artist’s brief career was cut short by cancer in 1964, just as he was beginning to make a recognizable impact on the country’s art scene.
Of English descent and born in Toronto in July 1933, Jack Reppen grew up in Don Mills. He’d originally aspired to a career in professional hockey, although broken bones and stitches checked that possibility. Reppen started to sketch and paint during his teens, selling some of his early drawings of athletes for publication in the Globe and Mail while he was still pursuing an electrical course at Northern Vocational School. Encouraged by the reception of his sports cartoons, Reppen shifted focus to art, supplementing high school courses with evening classes at the Ontario College of Art—under Jack Nichols, George Pepper, and Eric Freifeld, and a correspondence course.
(Right: Toronto Star [April 14, 1959].)
To pay for his studies, he worked first repairing traffic lights, then broke into the art world with a job painting the white lines on roadways. “But no matter what the artist’s flair behind the brush,” David Cobb joked in the Star (March 31, 1962), “there is a limit to the scope centre-line painting affords. So Reppen turned to commercial art full-time in 1953.”
By the late 1950s, Reppen was freelancing for the Toronto Star, parodying the day’s sports and entertainment news in cartoon form. He was praised by art critics and newspaper readers for his “sharply observed, witty exaggerations of theatrical and sporting personalities,” as one critic described them. Another felt his caricatures showed hints of the “boldly abstract.”
At the same time as he was gaining fame for newspaper work, he had a nine-to-five career as an art director at Prudential Insurance, designing advertising graphics. Then, when he got home in the evenings, he threw himself into his “serious” painting. His daily grind—up at 6 a.m. and frequently painting until past midnight—was exhausting. Working what amounted to three jobs meant less time spent with his wife Claire and two young children, and less time pursuing his diverse interests in jazz, drama, and poetry, as well as boxing and hockey. “Jack always worked hard enough for three men,” the president of the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) would later eulogize, “as if he had a premonition that he must crowd a lifetime of experience into a few short years.”
(Right: Reppen’s depiction of Eartha Kitt from the Toronto Star [July 25, 1961].)
Reppen’s first solo show took place at Gallery Moos (169 Avenue Road, at Davenport) in 1959. The Gallery had just been opened in May 1959 by Walter Moos, who’d escaped Nazi persecution and had recently arrived in Toronto. Moos was “determined to raise the city’s visual literacy,” wrote James Adams, shortly after the gallery owner’s death in 2013. The 32-year-old utilized his family’s connections as gallery owners and art dealers—dating back to 1899—in Germany and Switzerland to secure showings of work by Picasso, Chagall, and Braque. Moos also played a significant role during his 50-year career in fostering and developing the careers of Canadian artists like Sorel Etrog, Ken Danby, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and, of course, Jack Reppen—who was the first Canadian artist to be shown at Gallery Moos.
At the time, Reppen’s fame was mostly due to his cartooning. But he strove for his fine art to be as different as possible. “It seemed as if he wanted to stress,” Arnold Rockman wrote in Canadian Art (September-October 1964), “that there was no connection between his advertising graphics . . . his caricatures . . . and his ‘serious’ painting.” Reviewing the 1959 show, critics felt his work was highly derivative of Oscar Cahén, Jean Dubuffet, and Paul Klee’s bird paintings, but recognized Reppen as an emerging talent.
(Above left: Globe and Mail [November 21, 1959].)
“Here is a young man combining some rectangles for an urban study—more or less the kind of thing you have seen before and too often felt: ‘What? Not more of that!’ But Reppen, although only 26, does not turn out merely ‘more of that.’ He makes a convincing pictorial statement with both surface and inner interests,” the Globe and Mail critic wrote. Reppen’s first solo show in November 1959 featured some pictorial work—including one of the prizefighter on the ropes, likely Seven…Eight…Nine—as well as early forays into abstract painting, showing the artist’s early interest in experimenting with surface texture.
Reppen’s progress as an artist was confirmed by a second solo show at Gallery Moos a year later, and his inclusion (along with York Wilson, John Bechtel, and Tony Olney) in a four-person exhibition of Canadian artists at the O’Keefe Centre in early 1961.
(Right: Toronto Star [November 29, 1960].)
By now, a critic for the Star (December 3, 1960) assessed, Reppen had “found something close to a personal style in the majority of his abstract oil paintings” by slathering paint mixed with other materials onto masonite to produce “a rough, uncompromising texture that resembles unfinished concrete, or perhaps weathered burlap.” The result urged the spectator “to run his hands over the surface,” but noted that the impression could grow tiresome. The exhibition still included Klee-inspired drawings but, the critic concluded, “the entire exhibit conveys a unified sense of artistic personality and a steadier vision; it is a notable advance over his first show in 1959.”
Reppen stated his own perspective on art in the catalogue for his 1960 exhibition at Gallery Moos:
For me, art is born of life and nature. This includes not only peace and prettiness but also savagery and tension. The glory of a rose belongs to nature—but so does the naked fury of a hurricane. Emotion is born from all phases of nature. Art is emotion, and the poignancy of a derelict should move us as much as a vase of petunias. Granted there is beauty in the valorous and the exalted, but there are the tainted, the botched and the damned, and they also are no insignificant part of the city of life.
Reppen showed his versatility as an artist by accepting commissions for commercial murals for the lobby of the Peter Dickinson-designed Prudential Building, on the northwest corner of King and Yonge; the Tip Top Tailors retail outlet at Cloverdale Mall; Little Long Lac Gold Mines; and the Constellation Hotel.
Arts patron Ben Dunkelman was an enthusiast of Reppen’s work, as well as a real estate developer and scion of the Tip Top Tailors family empire. He commissioned Reppen to produce a 40-foot mural for the retailer’s store at the Cloverdale Mall, then an outdoor plaza. Unveiled on October 14, 1960, the abstract mural was very much in keeping with his gallery work, Arnold Rockman assessed, “full of subtle gradations of tone and very fashionable in its use of warped curves and paint as gesture.”
In contrast, Reppen’s mural for Prudential, which was entitled Crossroads and unveiled the following month, looked very much like the work of an advertising designer. Depicting the history of the King and Yonge intersection using “flat, hard colours,” Rockman compared the mural to the work of Ben Shahn.
When Dunkelman and partners were building the ultra-modern Constellation Hotel on Dixon Road near the airport, they set aside $20,000 of the project’s $3-million budget to commission works from Reppen, sculptor Gerald Gladstone, and painter Harold Town.
(Left: Toronto Star [September 7, 1962].)
Reppen spent two weeks making sketches and studies in France’s Burgundy wine country in the summer of 1962 with his only instruction being, as one account put it, to sketch “spontaneous and creative impressions of atmosphere,” the landscape, and the locals he encountered. Although realist in form, one critic noted, the resulting 50 sketches and paintings—30 of which would be incorporated in a 30-foot mural decorating the hotel’s Burgundy Room—retained the “sense of accent, sensuous texture and shape” seen in the artist’s abstracts. For the hotel’s Sportsman Lounge, Reppen supplied some original portraits of athletes like Maurice Richard.
In the summer of 1961, Reppen spent two weeks exploring Mexico, finding inspiration and “what every young painter strives for—a style that was undeniably his,” art critic Antony Ferry argued in the Star (January 23, 1965). “He could have left all these canvasses unsigned. We would have recognized them.”
On this trip, and another to Yucatán, Mexico, in 1963, Reppen was fascinated by what he saw: pre-Columbian ruins, worn gates, and weathered walls of ancient town squares, scrawled with writing from across generations—”[t]he superimposed layers of civilization,” Rockman called it. The young artist, Ferry suggested, found in Mexico “a heightened sense of an ancient past still present,” a perspective he likely wouldn’t have discovered at home in Toronto. “Mexico had a palpable meaning for him because he always had loved the grain and texture and the worn feel of things.”
Reppen set out to recreate these complex textures and surfaces, incorporating an unusual assortment of material—epoxy resin, tin sheeting, scrap wire, pebbles, salvaged wood, masonite, glue, and sand—and covering the collage in layers of oil paint in order to mimic the effects of sun, rain, and time. “His paintings look as if they had been carefully chopped out of an actual weathered wall,” Rockman argued, “and transported home.”
“Reppen loved old battered ruins, that’s plain,” Kay Kritzwiser wrote in the Globe and Mail (May 1, 1971), “but what they seemed to mean to him was not just a challenge to reproduce their effect, but an impulse to get at the timelessness of weather, material, people and events which make ruins such an irresistible amalgam.”
Critics called his technique “daring.” Some speculated that his mastery of using mixed-media to create natural-looking, weathered surfaces had been informed by his early experience painting lines on roadways in all states of repair. Others, noting Reppen’s affinity for contemporary Spanish painting, drew comparisons to the work of Antoni Tàpies.
(Right: Toronto Star [March 31, 1962].)
On the same day in the spring of 1962, Reppen was announced as the winner of the W.H. Baxter Art Award from the Ontario Society of Artists—for one of his Mexico-inspired abstracts—and made his first sale to a prominent institution when the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts bought San Miguel at Night, another Mexico-inspired piece. That same year, his work also featured in gallery shows in Montreal, Rochester, Buffalo, and Winnipeg, where he received another prize at the First Biennial Winnipeg Show for Valley of the Aztec. And another work, Six Ways With Landscape, was sold to the London Public Library and Art Museum.
At a Gallery Moos show in November 1961, 40 of the 50 paintings on display sold within a day, and the balance soon afterward. Reppen called his success “[a] complete surprise” when interviewed by Cobb for the Star in 1962: “I don’t paint what you might call pretty pictures.” Prices went up, with Reppen commanding $300 to $700 for his canvases by 1962—some of which are priced between $5,000 and $10,000 at auction today. And, for the remainder of his career, Reppen would have a waiting list of interested buyers with admirers in Canada, the United States, and Europe. Reppen’s patrons included Dunkelman, architect John B. Parkin, John David Eaton, arts critic Nathan Cohen, politician Allan Lamport, and jazz musician Oscar Peterson.
Reppen’s goal, one reporter speculated after an interview, was “[t]o paint as he likes, full-time.” But, with his “serious” art not yet covering his family’s bills, Reppen happily continued drawing caricatures and accepting commercial work for the remainder of his career. He could, however, afford to move his painting out of his basement and into a studio located on Isabella Street, where his wife Claire would no longer have to be diligent to protect his murals from their two young children. In late 1962, the family also upgraded from a Don Mills bungalow—where neighbours had objected to his sculpture in the front garden and painted mural on his back fence—to a house on Farnham Avenue, completely gutting and renovating it to suit their taste.
Reppen expressed satisfaction with the growth and development of the local art scene in his interview with Cobb. “There are a dozen galleries in Toronto today where there were a couple five years ago,” he noted. “The new generation is far more enlightened than its parents were: the wick has been lit, I think, and the powder-keg is about to go off.” As if to confirm Reppen’s place within this explosion of contemporary art in Canada, the painter was selected as one of 78 artists exhibited at the fifth Biennial of Canadian Paintings in England in June 1963.
(Left: Detail from portrait of Jack Reppen from Reppen ’61 [Gallery Moos, 1961].)
Observing Reppen’s abstracts at Gallery Moos—now located at 136-138 Yorkville Avenue and the centre of a burgeoning new neighbourhood—in May 1963, Star arts critic Elizabeth Kilbourn overheard another visitor say: “I wouldn’t call those pictures art, y’know. They’re more in the nature of curios.” Kilbourn felt the unsophisticated comment perfectly described Reppen’s recreations of the worn walls, graffiti, and weathered doors seen in his travels. “In short, they are high-class, handsomely crafted, made-by-hand souvenirs of Mexico,” she said. “Reppen’s hard work, ingenuity and devotion to his task are unmistakable, and this show indicates a wider degree of technical inventiveness. But the creative vision that transmutes artifact into art is missing.”
As early as 1963, Reppen sold a painting to Vincent Price, the horror-movie actor with the distinctive baritone, who was also a well-respected collector of fine art. Price, who visited Reppen in his Toronto studio on at least one occasion, took a deep personal interest in the artist, becoming—along with Moos—one of Reppen’s most fervent champions. Price included the Canadian’s work in a series of exhibitions and art sales he curated (“The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art”) for the Sears department store chain, which exposed young, talented, but lesser-known artists to a mass audience. “Reppen’s pictures have been among the best-sellers out of all the abstract paintings in the Sears’ show,” Price later recalled. “He was one man that people would write to me about if they had bought one of his pictures. They always wanted to know more about him.”
(Right: Jack Reppen’s Flower Seller from Reppen ’61 [Gallery Moos, 1961].)
In early 1964, Reppen underwent major surgery. After recuperating sufficiently to return to his studio, he suffered a relapse in late May and was hospitalized. He died of cancer on June 2, 1964. “It’s terrible to hear of his death,” Price told the Star (June 6, 1964). “Reppen was really coming along as a painter,” he added. “He had enormous talent and would have had a great international reputation.”
Most critics who eulogized Reppen would have agreed, arguing that though he was already considered one of the country’s most prominent painters, his greatest work still lay ahead of him. That his cluttered studio looked like he’d just stepped out for a moment—with sketches still on his drawing board, and a final painting unfinished on an easel—underlined the fact that the young artist’s promise and ambitions would go unfulfilled.
(Left: Jack Reppen’s Gladiator from Reppen ’61 [Gallery Moos, 1961].)
Art had afforded him the opportunity to travel widely to Mexico, Amsterdam, London, and France, but his family was never able to tour Europe as fully as he’d hoped. Nor did they get to Spain as Reppen had been planning (with Vincent Price’s encouragement) at the time of his death. One wonders, too, what work might have emerged with a trip to Israel. “I think it’s changing very fast,” Reppen once said of his desire to visit the Middle Eastern country, “and I’d like to see it before it loses all its customs and culture. Besides, there’s a lot of digging going on there.” Moreover, the versatile artist had spoken of exploring feature film-making.
Upon his death, however, some observers suggested that Reppen had compromised himself as a “serious” artist. “We followed his work with great interest,” said William Winthrow, director of the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO), “though we thought it a shame that he worked commercially, because he really had what it takes to be a first-class painter.” Such distinctions between high- and low-brow culture, however, were foreign to Reppen, who was as at home among the crowd at a hockey game as in a jazz club. It was fitting then, that at Reppen’s own request, the funeral service at the First Unitarian Church on June 6 was punctuated by the performance of a jazz quartet led by Ron Rully.
(Above right: Reppen’s last painting, still incomplete, on an easel shortly after his death. Photograph by Anthony Hayman from Canadian Art [September-October 1964].)
At the time of his first exhibition, newspaper notices focused on his fame as a cartoonist. Upon his death, Reppen’s cartooning was an afterthought. He was, first and foremost, remembered as a “serious” artist.
The art auction held shortly after his death to raise funds for his widow and family indicated Reppen’s popularity and standing among his fellow artists. On the evening of June 24, 1964, comedians Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster acted as auctioneers, selling off 50 paintings and sculptures donated by some of the pre-eminent artists of Toronto and Montreal, including Harold Town, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Kazuo Nakumura, and William Kurelek. Between $8,000 and $9,000 was raised for the family from bidders. The most poignant moment of the night came when Reppen’s mother Grace unexpectedly rose before the crowd of 600 and, through tears, said simply: “Thank you, and my love to you all.”
Within months of Reppen’s death, the Art Gallery of Toronto organized an exhibit, as Winthrow put it, as “a memorial to a young Canadian artist with unusually fine potential who died just at the beginning of a very promising career.” Acknowledging that it was likely too soon to mount a full retrospective, Ferry complained in the Star that the hastily-assembled exhibition did not reflect “a balanced selection of the late artist’s works.” Ferry felt the show under-represented Reppen’s early years, placing too great a focus on the Mexico-inspired “coarse, lively, multi-textured abstracts,” then most popular with private collectors. Ferry noted that a better arrangement of the exhibition’s works would show Reppen’s “marked and consistent development” as an artist. Major works were covered, he said, but not the studies and explorations that would best demonstrate how Reppen’s themes and techniques evolved over his brief life.
(Above left: Globe and Mail [September 19, 1964].)
Moreover, Ferry objected to the assumption that Reppen was, as an artist, only beginning to make an impact on the scene. “He was already making private but important discoveries, and we can only wait now for a full retrospective show of his works to prove that point,” Ferry concluded.
In addition to Reppen’s works finding a home in the permanent collections of institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada, the AGO, and Hart House, his work has featured in or been the focus of a handful of shows at Gallery Moos, Mazelow Gallery, and Kaspar Gallery, among others.
“The work,” Kritzwiser wrote of paintings and gouaches featured in a solo show at Mazelow Gallery in the spring of 1971, “mainly from 1961 to 1963, stands up with assurance. Reppen, seen today, makes you wonder at some of our young painters who are still just messing about with the ideas he was then confidently exploring.”
But as the years passed, Reppen faded from the forefront of public consciousness. Harold Town raged in a Globe and Mail (November 2, 1974) review of Barry Lord’s The History of Painting in Canada (NC Press, 1974) that Reppen was among a number of artists overlooked in the book, which had promised an exhaustive survey.
Christopher Hume, visiting an exhibition of Canadian abstract painting at the Royal Canadian Academy Gallery in 1988 had a similar reaction. He noted in the Star (October 7, 1988) that Reppen [had] “been largely ignored since his death in 1964″ but “the work with which he’s represented, Luminous Ruins, is as assured and thoughtful a piece of abstraction as one could hope to see. It dates from 1962 but feels absolutely contemporary.”
Sources consulted: Jack Reppen, Reppen ’61 (Gallery Moos, 1961); Arnold Rockman, “Jack Reppen: A Retrospective Look,” Canadian Art (September-October 1964); and articles from the Globe and Mail (November 21, 1959; November 22 and December 3, 1960; February 18 and November 4, 1961; September 8, 1962; May 4 & 18, October 12, and November 9, 1963; May 23, June 3, 6, 13 & 25, August 1 & 8, September 5, 1964; January 16, 23 & 30, 1965; January 29 and December 17 1966; April 17 and May 1, 1971; November 2, 1974; October 18, 1988; February 13, 1993; and October 8, 2003); and Toronto Star (March 21, 1957; October 24, 1959; January 23, October 1 & 7, November 23 & 29, and December 3, 1960; February 11 & 18, September 16, and December 16, 1961; March 31, April 30, September 7, and November 30, 1962; February 26, and May 4, 9, 10 & 18, 1963; June 5, 6, 8, 20 & 25, August 7, September 2, 1964; January 23, 1965; February 3, 1966; September 11, 1973; April 5, 1980; October 7, 1988; and February 19, 2004).