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Catalogue Essay: Wendy Snyder, Director, The Sam Glankoff Collection

In 1981, John Russell, the New York Times art critic, reviewed Sam Glankoff’s first solo exhibition, at the Graham Gallery in New York City. His opening line: “It is not everyday that an artist of stature makes his debut in New York at the age of 87.”

Nearly 60 years earlier, Glankoff had participated in Whitney Studio Club exhibitions (from 1922 to 1928), and had received critical attention in New York Times reviews of those group shows. However, after the Club disbanded in 1928, he neither sought nor chose to exhibit his art again. When Glankoff was 80 years old, the Whitney Museum of American Art offered him an exhibition. His response was something to the effect of, “I’m not ready yet.”

Glankoff lived and worked in the same small, two-room apartment on East 33rd Street in New York for 50 years. During the last decades of his life, each morning and afternoon, when sufficient natural light came through the windows, Glankoff worked in his studio. He spent the latter part of each day in contemplation, either reading or drawing. The walls in his living space were lined with books on critical theory, poetry, philosophy and Zen Buddhism, along with an extensive collection of science fiction paperbacks. The studio walls were covered with large-scale works on paper—circles and abstract shapes in brilliant hues. A narrow bed was used as a surface for stacking large, white portfolios filled with his work; in turn, those portfolios served as surfaces for drying paper panels. He stacked painted-plywood boards in neat rows to the left of the printing table he had designed and built. His drafting table served as a work surface, as did his baby grand piano. It was in this compact, ordered world that he developed his unique process called “print-painting,” a term invented by Elke Solomon, a former curator at the Whitney Museum, when she visited Glankoff at his studio in 1974.  Upon seeing his large-scale, original works, she remarked, “These are not prints-these are paintings.”

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Samuel Glankoff (originally Glanckopf) was born on Grand Street in New York in 1894, the second of four children. His mother was the cultural anchor in their Russian- Jewish home. Classical music, the writings of Goethe, Heine and Schiller, and the Masses (a periodical devoted to Socialism and utopian causes) all contributed to the family’s intellectual life. Glankoff was a moody, distant, brooding child who sought refuge in his room to paint. He enjoyed spending time alone at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, he would commit to memory details of paintings he saw on its walls. As he grew older, he sought any job in which he could hold a paintbrush. In 1916, he started taking evening classes at the Art Students League, but when the United States entered World War I in 1917, Glankoff, without telling his family, left New York for Cuba as a conscientious objector.

In 1920, back in New York after difficult years in Cuba, he went to work at various art-services studios, where he drew advertisements and used the woodcut as his preferred medium for illustrations. He lived in downtown Manhattan, on MacDougal Street, with his brother, Mortimer (who in 1932 founded the Naborhood Theatre Guide, which later became CUE magazine). When Glankoff moved to 7 West 14th Street, he met artists who were friends of Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Studio Club. At their urging, Glankoff exhibited his paintings and woodcuts with that group. Glankoff’s name (as “Glanckopf”) can be found listed after that of artist William Glackens in group-exhibition catalogs in the archives of the Whitney Museum. New York Times reviews from those years single him out from other, now-well-known artists such as Leon Kroll, Rockwell Kent, John Sloan and Stuart Davis.

In the mid-1920s, Glankoff met Frances Kornblum. With her promise that he could paint full-time, they took up residence together in Woodstock in 1926, in a house bought by her parents. With the stock-market crash of 1929, Kornblum’s family lost its financial holdings. From that time until the mid 1950s, Glankoff took on commercial, income-generating assignments, living between New York and Woodstock.

From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, Glankoff produced woodcut book illustrations and jacket covers. His woodcut and pen-and-ink illustrations were reproduced in magazines including St. Nicholas, Scribner’s, the New Yorker and his brother Mort’s CUE. From the late 1930s through the early 1950s, comic strip illustrations dominated American advertising, and Glankoff excelled at creating them. He was hired to produce comic strip campaigns for Popsicle Pete and Chiquita bananas, and promotional, comic strip pamphlets for such companies as Westinghouse and Billy Brand. In the 1940s, Glankoff became one of the head artists for True Comics, a series of comic books for boys that featured stories about American and European history and biographical stories about heroic figures. From the mid-1950s until 1970, Glankoff designed and fabricated more than 200 stuffed toys (including the first three-dimensional versions of the Babar the Elephant family and Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat) for Impulse Items, the company Kornblum had formed in 1950 to import and produce stuffed animal toys.

During the long period when Glankoff and Kornblum lived in Woodstock, the artist produced a large quantity of paintings and woodcuts, but relatively few canvases from those years survive. In 1970, after Kornblum’s death, Glankoff sold the couple’s house in Woodstock and set up his studio in his apartment on East 33rd Street.  He walked away from the shed in Woodstock filled with his paintings-they no longer held his interest.  What did hold his interest were the black-and-white representational woodcuts—made in the German Expressionist style—that he had produced in the 1920s and 1930s, and the color abstract monotypes he had made from the 1940s through the 1960s.

Now back on 33rd Street full time, Glankoff’s apartment was too small to live, paint and store canvases in.  So he developed a new technique that would allow him to paint on paper without sacrificing any of the spontaneity of painting on canvas.  Glankoff had recently seen an exhibition of prints by the 20th-century Japanese woodblock master Shiko Munakata, and the way Munakata pasted together smaller panels of Japanese paper to form a larger whole inspired him.

Glankoff built a table on which he was able to slide paper panels across a plywood board, carved and then later painted with permanently affixed designs.  He then began to paint onto multiple, uniform-size boards, experimenting with different Japanese papers and perfecting a method of joining his paper panels together. (Glankoff already had over forty years experience with Japanese paper, from working with woodcuts). A new vocabulary of images was based on recurring themes in his earlier drawings, watercolors and woodcuts.  Water-soluble inks were combined with glycerin to control the drying speed, and he added casein to harden the inks and extend the color palette.  Since he was able to control the absorbency of his paper, layer after layer of color could be applied to the paper panels.  As the years passed, Glankoff used more costly inks, and by the mid 1970s, his palette had begun to explode with color.  He worked this way for the remaining years of his life.

In 1981, at the age of 87, Glankoff accepted the Graham Gallery’s invitation to present a solo exhibition. He also agreed to move to a larger apartment where, on an enormous table in his new studio, he was able to join together for the first time his larger-scale works. He died in April 1982, six months after the Graham Gallery exhibition.

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At the end of a life of deliberate solitude, Glankoff had had his first solo gallery show in over 50 years and participated in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where his work was hung alongside that of Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler. He enjoyed John Russell’s praise of the Graham Gallery exhibition and took part in a documentary film about his life and art. In the last years of his life, the imagery in his work was transformed from archaic, elemental shapes and Zen-inspired circles to emotive, primordial, joy-filled figures. Glankoff had reemerged into the world.

In September 1984, the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers University mounted a retrospective exhibition of Glankoff’s work. Marilyn Kushner, in her essay for the exhibition’s catalog, wrote: “Like monotypes, they are unique transfer prints but, as in painting, there is an expressive importance associated with the application of the pigment.” Jeffrey Wechsler, then assistant director of the museum and the curator of the exhibition, observed: “‘Print-painting’ is really an invention of Glankoff’s, and it’s rather remarkable that, in the late 20th century, an artist could really come up with an entirely new technique. Certainly it was based on other techniques, but it had specific qualities and characteristics which Glankoff, through his great experience with the medium, realized had to come together in an entirely new form.”