Sam Glankoff (1894-1982) 20th Century American ModernistSkip to content
"Seven Decades: Sam Glankoff's Working Methods"
Lecture Presented, Curator, Jeffrey Wechsler
Sam Glankoff had a long and very productive artistic life. One might use the term artistic career instead of artistic life. But because Glankoff never tried to sell his work, rarely showed it to anybody, and created in a self imposed isolation apart from the art world, 'career' seems rather too commercial, even too public a word. After all, Glankoff was convinced to release work for his first one man show only after he had reached the age of eighty seven.
The way Glankoff made his living his commercial career was through illustration and other practical enterprises for example, illustrations for advertising, illustrations for educational comic books, book covers and the like. However, Glankoff always maintained a sharp distinction between what he did to support himself and what he did as art, a sharp distinction emphasized by switching from these commercial images to his private world of more personal abstract imagery.
In this talk I’d like to briefly touch on certain aspects of Glankoff’s art, aspects which reveal both continuity and change through seven decades of activity, and describe to some degree his working methods.
One of the most fascinating things about Glankoff’s work is its self contained, self referential quality, certainly due in part to the artist’s personality. Glankoff was a very shy and introspective man. It appears that he often saw little need to search for subject matter elsewhere when he could use his own early imagery, rather like a renewable resource, constantly reworking and refining it, virtually recycling old forms again and again. His work is a wonderful opportunity to observe the artistic meaning of the term “to abstract”. For example, this slide done around 1952, about mid career, is a watercolor (left, RYBWC 018), abstract of course, with the essentials refined and removed. As an example of that, the house and other objects in the landscape are reduced to simple rectangles. The tree (below left, F 26), especially, I want to point out because it is reduced to a very geometric form, a pure circle. In fact, he’s emphasized that by drawing a line around it. The circle will become a very important aspect of Glankoff’s art later on.
But Glankoff was not essentially a landscape artist. His abstraction usually derived from the human figure. Here on the left is an abstracted female form (above, PP 1026). Again, simplified outline, the colors obviously not representational, the emphasis again, on the circles of the breasts. Here (above right, C 30), in a sketch, we see an even more abstracted image of that.
We can recognize the figure (below left, PP 1055) to some extent because we've seen where it has come from. The circles are still there, but the bottom of the figure has been separated entirely from the top of the figure. From sketches such as these (below middle, FII 54), Glankoff was to create larger scale works (below right, PP 2025). And again, the relationship becomes clear when seen side by side. However, when viewing a work such as this, one might think there was a totally non objective artist at work. Here, Glankoff has taken the center section out of that work and simply expanded it to make a two-circle work (left, PP 2093) in which the human content seems to be removed.
Another example of this is a watercolor (above, FgWC 004) from about the 1920s, we believe, of women working. I want to focus your attention on the figure in the upper right, a person in an awkward bent over position, in whom Glankoff seemed to find a great deal of potential as he continued to abstract the figure. Here is a sketch (below, FI 113) in which this doubled over figure is forming a triangle with a rounded top. And here almost a haystack, this same form with this circle being the head. Glankoff would continue to change and refine again. (right, AWdC 1202-9)
Here is one more sketch to show that evolution of the figure being abstracted (two above, right, RBWWdC 2402-25-12). Two works, here, rather like the first two comparisons, show two abstract forms on the right coming from this abstracted form the woman’s breasts. Again, one would not know anything about the human origin of the form without this side by side comparison. (two below, FgWC 001)
I'd like to start a longer sequence of comparisons to focus on this life long interest in his own early work as a future source. This woodcut (two above, RBWWdC 2402-25-12) and watercolor (above, FgWC 001) probably date from around 1925. It is possible, as is often the case in prints, that the watercolor came first, and became the model for the print, because after all, the work is reversed. When you make a print designed on the wood block, it doesn't turn out to be backwards, in a sense, when you print it. So this print might have come afterwards. Nevertheless, I want to focus on this X shape form, which you'll notice in the figure here. The leg and the arm start to create an X form.
We're going to jump ahead twenty five years now to show how long he would hold onto these images to this gouache (above, ACP 017), done probably in the 1950s. We now see emphasized that X shape that I talked about over here. This arc over here marks the hunch of the woman's shoulders. The head has now become a blur above it that red smear. On the other side of the picture we have this C shape of the hunched back of the woman. On this side, this C shaped curve with a suggestion of the leg coming downward. We have over here, again, a suggestion of the head. Even perspective lines of this wall or landscape behind the head are somewhat translated in the perspective lines in other objects you see around this image. So even with this twenty five year jump, he's still working on the same piece in a way. As always, he would continuously do sketches to further refine the work. We see many many variations on these two forms, the C shape and the X shape. We can still refer to that hunched over triangular figure in the field we saw earlier.
In a woodcut (right, AWdC-CM 1904-8) of about the 1950s or 60s the X and the C have become rather monumental. They take up the whole image. There's very little background left. But still we see where they've come from. But also the emergence of this circle, that important circular form, a motif he would use over and over again.
Sometimes Glankoff would then take half of his original image. Here, in a work of the 60s, he's taken the C shape (above left, AWdC-M 2602-3) and made it work again. And he undertook a color variation. The head and gesture still retained. He's actually reversed the direction of this arrow, because if you keep in mind that he's working from print to print, you realize that things are constantly being reversed back and forth. He's taking one from the other so the images are constantly changing direction. But here he's maintained the direction of the arrow.
And again, the X and the C can be made into a much larger image (above center, PP 4055). Here, we're now into the late 1970s, with the same image taking over a very large composition, over four feet in width. And finally an image where only the X and the O are apparent (above right, PP 2108). The circle becomes very, very dominant but still contains that vague reminiscence of that woman with her legs and arms crossed, a very remarkable example of this constant recycling of his own imagery for over five, six decades.
But Glankoff had reasons for using this process of abstraction. And these reasons are related, but slightly different, as they pertain to the figural abstractions. Let us call them pure abstractions, those which derive more from geometry and philosophy than visual reductivism.
We have two examples of different types of work here. On the left, a sketch (above left, SPI 12) for the large nine panel piece (above center, PP 9002), which is on the main wall within the Glankoff show, here squared for enlargement, with very simple gestural figures. And there on the right, somewhat distorted because the work was photographed from an angle, one of his simple circles (above right, PP 4124) or ovals, the purity [of the circle] and the figure. As Marilyn Kushner put it in the catalogue essay for this exhibition, "Geometry and the circle, which Glankoff repeatedly used at the end of his life, seemed to represent an escape from subjectivity to a more purely non-representational image." Now, given Glankoff's introspectiveness, even the circle brought him back to self confrontation. In a commentary from his notes Glankoff observes that "...circles go beyond formal purity to engage the artist at deeper psychological and cultural levels." Here's a quote from Glankoff:
"A circle is undeniably a circle, and remains a circle. You can't impose. It is always an abstraction. That, of course, is the secret of Zen. The idea of the circle has great significance. It is primordial. It is the most ancient symbol. In all the prehistoric caves you'll find just a circle. It has symbolized the constant need to express completion or culmination."
But then Glankoff always alternated purity and humanity. The figure had come back in to humanize his art. Another quote from Glankoff:
"I've returned to the figurative thing where people become people. They're funny looking people, but they're people. I don't want them to be constructed as biological figures that have any anatomy at all. They resemble figures only by courtesy. What I'm trying to do is make a figure so hidden that it wouldn't be recognizable as a human figure."
In these terms, with both the circle and the figure, Glankoff is very much attuned to the philosophies of the Abstract Expressionists, with whom he was a contemporary. Although, not showing his work, he was simply not known at the time. He was a contemporary within to some extent the age, actually a bit older than many of them. And he retained the same concepts of content within a generally abstract image. The Abstract Expressionists went back to archaic art, to primitive art, in order to try to bring forward a universality of conception, something which through its universalized, generalized form could be understandable in a way to all cultures, to all individuals.
And just as important as what Glankoff showed the viewer was how he chose to show it, that is, the medium by which his images were presented. Although Glankoff was quite proficient as draftsman and painter, he focused on printmaking as the ideal method to create his desired imagery and visual effects. His intensive experimentation with the transfer medium of printmaking, and his ingenuity in devising variations on existing methods, led him from simple woodcuts in the 1920s to the large multi paneled pieces made between 1970 and 1982, which are now called print paintings.
We can now watch the evolution of Glankoff through the woodcut printing medium, through these early works, again, from the 1920s. Here, a more traditional image (right, RBWWdC 0402). Volumetric form, the rendering of...the feeling of muscle and flesh. But very quickly Glankoff moved away from that. He became interested in the German Expressionist woodcut artists, and took up their format, and their form and technique. So he started gouging more directly into the wood, gouging out great areas of white, adding a great deal of intensity of expression to his work.
His technical proficiency, as I said, was very great. He could have been a portrait artist in the woodcut medium, if he had chosen to. On the left we have a portrait of his wife, Frances Kornblum (above left, RBWWdC 4108), and on the right, a portrait of his brother, Mort Glankoff (above right, RBWWdC 2001). But this was not to be his direction.
He continued to look through the expressionist mode, here in works from the mid 30s. You see that he's enlarged the figures (left, RBWWdC 5204). He has made them, again, more abstract. On the right, for example, where we have faces, they become rather like primitive masks. And the white area becomes much more dominating, balancing the black, becoming much more of a purely formal compositional statement.
His interest in color starts to come out with these works, the color linocuts (below, WdCI 02501 and WdCI 02601) of perhaps the 1920s, 1930s, which are, again, probably commercial works, possibly made for book covers or book illustrations. But again, early on we see this interest in intense color and an interest in the simplified form using the female. But the color is very, very...almost, one might say idealized in terms of making color everything. In fact, the woman on the right is surrounded by an aura of color. She literally glows with it. Later on, the further abstracted image is carried on into his works of the 50s and 60s, where his woodcuts become virtually non¬representational.
But it is the print paintings which I'd like to emphasize. Print painting is really an invention of Glankoff's. And it's rather remarkable that in the late twentieth 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.
What I'd like to do now is describe the way that Glankoff would make a print painting by using this visual aid over here. So if we could have the lights up a little bit... One of the reasons that Glankoff worked the way he did, in a sense inventing print painting, is because he also wanted to work by himself. He was a very shy and introspective man, as I said, and he wanted to complete the entire work on his own. What I have here and am trying to set up, is an entire run of the wooden blocks from which he would create a print painting. In fact, the very painting which we now have up as a slide on the screen is displayed in the museum right now.
Glankoff lived in a very small apartment where he didn't have much space to store work. He liked to work small. He wanted to work without assistance. If you're trying to make large works in printmaking you usually have to work with very large pieces of paper. And that means having somebody to help you transfer along in the printing press. Since Glankoff did not want to do that, he worked with a much smaller paper, and decided to create a process which would allow him to create large scale works out of small scale panels.
The way Glankoff worked is essentially a combination of his original woodcut, the monotype, and painting. A monotype print is simply the transfer of ink or paint from one flat surface to another. As soon as I press on the paper [on the inked surface] and then pull it off, I lose the image at that point. The paint or ink comes off. There's nothing left. Glankoff wanted something which was going to be more permanent.
The image is affixed on these boards by using a permanent pigment such as acrylic. This way he could actually print the work over and over and redo it in a different format. He could print it once in these colors, then take away that ink, and because these images were created from the template, from which he'd put the next colors down, he was able to print repeatedly. The monotype, on the other hand, would have been gone.
It's not really a woodcut process because there's no incising into the wood itself. Everything is put directly onto the surface and then transferred over. And then it's not really a painting, even though it seems to have the look of a painting, and Glankoff did in a sense paint directly with his inks and caseins onto the board. But it is a transfer process, so it can't be a painting because that's direct and Glankoff preferred that indirect method.
Glankoff was very practical. He used these small pieces of Japanese paper which determined the size of each individual board. The assemblage of those (uniformly sized) boards determined the size of each individual work. He devised a very carefully worked out registration table by which he could put the paper over the print surface, paint his inks onto the board, slide the paper over, drop it there himself, and working with hand pressure, with a roller, press the inking onto it. The hand pressure was important. The personal touch and various textures that he wanted could not be achieved in a more direct technique, he felt.
He used paper, not only because it was very easy to store and didn't take up much room, but also because this infusion of paint into the surface produces a very, very rich type of color. He was very interested in color experimentation, as you can see in his works. His process made possible the overlay of color and for color added on top of color. The ink seeps directly into the paper and creates an exceedingly rich tone. This was something he realized was best achieved within this transfer process.
There are some other aspects, I think, we could best demonstrate with these two slides. This saturation of color I've been talking about is very important. Here are two of the most intensely colored works in the exhibition. The one on the left belongs to the Guggenheim Museum in New York (above left, PP 4184). It is very bright in its Christmas-like complementary reds and greens, with that constant overlay and pressure of ink upon ink, layer upon layer. The same relates to his constant usage of banding one color above the other. This area here (two above, right, PP 4159) is yellow over white over red over orange and so forth. This was such an extremely complicated procedure, just as you saw in this nine panel work. If he does multiple printing and uses six printings to make one panel, to create the eight panel piece he has to print, using this procedure, forty eight times to make one work. And then join the whole thing together. It's a very compulsive attitude really. And very important to what he was trying to do.
At the same time, this technique allowed for these extreme color variations within the same image. Because that image never left the board, he could do it in one color variation once, and then come up with a completely different color variation, basically keeping the same format over and over. These two works are from a series of three which we have along the main wall of the gallery (below, PP 6017 and PP 6019).
When we consider the care and thought that went into Glankoff's art, the skill honed by decades of work the sheer dedication we may feel disappointed that the artist labored in seclusion almost to the end of his life. Certainly towards the end of his life as people finally drew him out of his isolation, there were no regrets on his part. His new found linkage with people, his realization of its importance and the happiness it could bring, impelled Glankoff to produce his most exuberant absolutely joyful (left, PP 6011) works ever. After almost eighty seven years, his art quite literally broke out in a smile. However, Glankoff's work remains very much a reflection of a particular personality and philosophy. And its intensity probably springs from his inward looking single-mindedness of purpose.
The retrospective laid out before us is an extremely personal vision. So it is perhaps fitting, ultimately, and in a peculiar sort of way, that Glankoff did keep his work private. His prints and print paintings were directed by an inner perception. Stored away, they are like pages of a diary, filled with personal meanings. They were created year after year and numbered in the hundreds and hundreds. Though hidden for so long, like Glankoff's talent, they continued to mature and flourish, whether or not they saw the light of day. Fortunately we see them now. Thank you.