Sam Glankoff is at once a man of his time and an anachronism. That contradiction has a great deal to do with both the freshness of his work and its atavistic power.
Glankoff will be eighty seven years old October, 1981. Roughly a contemporary of Milton Avery, he was born four years after Hans Hoffmann and Josef Albers. He was ten years old when Willem de Kooning and Arshile Gorky were born. Although Glankoff lived and painted in New York during the thirties, those heady years when emotion and the act of creation became the central themes of American art, he did not begin his personal journey towards a deeply emotional, mythic abstraction until the mid 1940s.
In the early 1920s, he exhibited traditional highly charged and pigmented landscape paintings at the Whitney Studio Club. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney had opened this forerunner to the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1918 as a way of promoting the then unheralded American art. Glankoff, always hesitant to exhibit his work, did so only because of pressure from his fellow artists. A review of the period entitled "Younger Americans" notes, "Samuel Glankoff is the unfamiliar name signed to a spell binding 'Solitude' of sea cliffs and bottomless deep blue fiords."
When Glankoff first began making woodcuts also in the 1920s, he carved in the traditional manner against the wood grain, but he found the resulting sensitivity of line and smoothness of finish contrary to his purpose. It was the emotive and the expressive that he sought in art.
"I wanted greater freedom to express the thing and beyond the thing."
Despite the constraints of the technique, however, his prints were already harsh with an inner rhythm that pointed towards expressionism. Cognizant of Glankoff's interest in woodcuts, an art director at Parents Magazine gave the artist a book that made all the difference. "Das Holzschnittbuch" by Paul Vestheim (Gustav Kiepenheuer Verlag Potsdam,1921), which Glankoff still owns, illustrates the history of European woodcuts. It starts with a 1440 Pieta from an illuminated manuscript and includes the works of Breughel, Daumier, Gauguin and Rubens. But for Glankoff, its most significant woodcuts were by Munch and the German Expressionists; Barlack, Heckel, Kirchner, Marc, Nolde, Pechstein and Schmidt Rottluff. These artists did not carve against the grain. They reveled in the awkward savagery unleashed when the knife followed the grain of the wood, arrested by knots and rings. With visual honesty they ripped away modern man's layers of sophistication to reveal primal pain and passion. Glankoff worked furiously, cutting country landscapes, portraits and socially conscious genre scenes into blocks of wood.
By making woodcuts, he was able to avoid the frustrations felt by the Abstract Expressionists when they were introduced to formal printmaking at Hayter's Atelier 17. The intervention of plate and printer destroyed their sense of direct involvement with the picture. But Glankoff found woodcut offered what canvas did for the others: it was his opportunity to be private and personal.
"The idea I could do everything myself and didn't need a cooperative effort attracted me to woodcut."
From 1920 to 1970, Glankoff earned his livelihood by commercial design. He made woodcut illustrations for books and book jackets. He also drew for magazines and industrial pamphlets. Since 1970, he has been able to devote full attention to his art.
During the ensuing decade he looked back on his earlier experiments and extracted what he liked. As opposed to the opaque oils of the woodcut period, he was drawn to the luminosity he achieved in the 1960s with water-soluble inks and caseins. Instead of the woodcut medium's traditional blocks of wood, he used plywood boards of the scale of the Japanese rice paper he preferred. He wanted to work even larger. At an exhibit at the Japan House, he saw a large Japanese woodcut composed of separate sheets of paper joined together. From this model he evolved his own method. He continued to cut into the wood, but he also began to create surface textures with gesso and paint. The incision remained an outline, as in his 1973 interpretation of a sprawled, exaggerated figure with distended head and amputated leg (cat.no.l4, PP4059). After a time, he stopped cutting into the wood altogether, making it possible to do away with line and concentrate on achieving the mottled radiance of his backgrounds and the fluid lyricism of his images.
He defines the technique he developed as "using a printing method to make a painting." Like a painter he applies successive layers of color to his print paintings. For this reason his work is closer to painting than to the traditional monotype process. Glankoff's technique, however, is well within the definition of a monotype proposed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's catalogue for its 1980 exhibit, "The Painterly Print": "An artist need only ink or paint a surface such as metal or glass and then print the pigments on paper in order to make a monotype. Whereas traditional printmaking techniques like woodcut, etching, or lithography involve the cutting or chemical fixing of a design in a plate so that the image can be repeatedly inked and printed, monotype does not. The direct transfer of a fresh painting or drawing, this process is meant to yield just one ('mono') print ('type')."
On Glankoff's drafting table is a clipboard thick with pages of designs. Though he refers to these as notations, he hopes the print will declare its independence and strives to permit the image to proceed freely. For his large prints, he uses either plywood or masonite boards in groups of two, four, six or eight. These he tapes together temporarily to approximate a single plate. Then as a guide he paints the image on the assembled boards with black, red oxide and white enamel or acrylic paint. One board at a time is then placed in register on a special table he constructed to true the sheets of Japanese rice paper on which he will print and register each paper panel correctly to each board. This is important in order to make successive impressions and then join the panels properly later on. Before adding the paper, he mixes his colors on a slab of glass and paints over the master design on the board with water-based ink and casein mixed with glycerin. Once the paper has been placed on the board, he wets it thoroughly, rolls it with a hand brayer, and sprays it once more. Between each overlay of color, he wipes the board clean and re applies ink and casein. After he has dried the individual sheets and pressed them separately between layered glass, he trims them and pastes the panels together, leaving 1/2" around to frame the whole. A completed large print can be the result of as many as twelve successive printings on each panel. Throughout the long process he strives to retain a spontaneity of expression.
Over the years, he has refined his images, although they retain that elemental force that has always concerned him. The new image led him in turn to a new understanding of color.
"It was probably an innate feeling that I had right along...I abandoned the idea of trying to transcribe appearances... [It is when I] tried to completely get away from it and confine myself to the most elemental shapes that I needed the support of color."
Many of the works are based on the human figure: sometimes a stalwart, monumental form and sometimes an expressionist explosion. Several recent prints restate a woodcut of the 1920s where two contemplative nude women sit on rocks at the shore. One looks towards the side. The other faces front, her arms and legs drawn up in the barest suggestion of an X. In the recent work these figures have been reduced to a vocabulary of equivalents: circles within circles, vectors, half moons, check marks and curves (cat. no.10, PP 2108). As Glankoff explored how his abstracted forms interrelated he kept trying to lose the figure altogether (cat.no.16, PP4099).
"I said to myself that no matter how far I depart from the body the human body it still will enforce itself on the person who looks at it. They'll find a body or some other recognizable thing."
He began to search for ways to avoid that recognition by presenting an image that was "purely non objective." That image was a circle.
"A circle is undeniably a circle and remains a circle. you can't impose. It is always an abstraction... That, of course, is the whole secret of Zen. The idea of the circle has a great significance. It is primordial. The most ancient symbol. In all the caves you'll find just a circle. It has symbolized a constant need to express completion, a culmination."
His purest abstractions have far more in common with the color-field stillness of Rothko and Gottlieb than they do with the action-packed frenzy of Pollack and de Kooning. His circles tend to shimmer and float in the center of a resonating field. One of the most arresting images is a cradle of interrupted circles that face each other but do not join (cat. no.20, PP 4162).
"To have completed that curve, becomes a consummation. It's like life itself. You supply what's missing. In your life and in my life I've supplied a lot of things that I've wanted to happen that didn't happen."
Glankoff's work continues in a state of flux and growth. He maintains a dialogue between pure abstraction and the human figure. The figure, however, is always primal. He wants to show its "stark essence" to probe beyond that essence to "the thing itself." Through the alchemy of shapes and colors, Glankoff seeks to make the intangible visible.
*Quotes from the artist come from an interview at his studio July 10, 1981 and from transcripts of other conversations.