Sam Glankoff (1894-1982) 20th Century American ModernistSkip to content
Catalogue Essay: Stacey B. Epstein, Hollis Taggart Galleries
One of the most striking elements of Glankoff’s mature works is his unusual technique. Termed “print-painting” by Whitney Museum curator Elke Solomon after a 1974 studio visit, the artist masterfully combines the two media by a method of his own invention. Part painting, part printing, Glankoff built up his forms through several layers of pigment, resulting in unique images of great visual impact that manage to retain the spontaneity and dynamism of the expressionist brushstroke that was his birthright. Marilyn Kushner explores this dichotomy in her catalogue essay for his 1984 retrospective at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University: “Like monotypes, they are unique transfer prints but, as in painting, there is an expressive importance associated with the application of the pigment.” (1)
Glankoff’s imagery is marked by a vital and expressive energy rooted in a biomorphic abstract language of symbols. The theoretical underpinnings for this work emerge from his abiding fascination in the expressiveness of the calligraphic mark, the power of primitive symbols, and the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Glankoff explored in depth the potential of such visually allusive forms. Although the flowering of the Abstract Expressionist movement came decades before his own mature period, “it provided an important model for expanding his primitivist imagery and mythic preoccupations toward a new and transcending concept of color form.” (2)
Color is an essential component in these works. Employing mysterious lines and shapes that hover over a “softly resonating” colored ground, “the resulting image, emerging from layers of encrusted, semi-opaque pigment, appears as something that has accrued over time – ancient but still miraculously luminous.” (3) Indeed, the juxtaposition of contrasting colors that may jar elsewhere settles in these works into something richly harmonious.
Born Samuel Glanckopf on New York’s vibrantly diverse Lower East Side, the artist began painting at a very young age. He enjoyed spending days alone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a child, studying the collections and memorizing details of old master paintings. In 1916 he enrolled in night classes at the Art Student’s League, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Glankoff spent the war years in Cuba as a conscientious objector, returning to New York only at war’s end. His search for creative employment in New York led him to a job illustrating for publications, where his main medium was the woodcut. This early experience with woodcuts would prove seminal to his later career, as his invented working method would draw from the woodcutting process. At this time we was also exposed to the handmade Japanese paper that would become his sole working support in his later years.
Glankoff was also inspired in his later work by the great Japanese woodcut master Shiko Munakata, from whom he learned to combine several panels of handmade paper into a larger whole. This innovation allowed Glankoff to create his grand four-panel compositions, arguably some of the most powerful in his oeuvre. In these, shapes and figures form a sort of personal iconography that detail Glankoff’s artistic life of introspective isolation. Through the expressiveness of these forms, the artist successfully communicates his deep-seated aesthetic feeling. It is this connection between artist and viewer, via the finished work, that Glankoff sought above all: “In art it is the feeling that is paramount. That’s the thing that we are looking for, and it’s beyond words.” (4)
Sam Glankoff passed away just six short months after his first solo exhibition, held at Graham Gallery in New York in 1981. The show earned him warm praise, and since then his work has been further examined and collected by institutions and individuals across the country. Glankoff’s print-paintings can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, The Fogg Art Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution, among many others.
1. Marilyn Kushner, Sam Glankoff (1894-1982): A Retrospective Exhibition, (New Brunswick: Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers), 1984, p. 31.
2. Sam Hunter, Introduction to Ibid., p. 3.
3. Elizabeth Wilson, “Sam Glankoff.” ARTnews, Feb. 2009.
4. Sam Glankoff, quoted in Hunter, p. 6.