Sam Glankoff (1894-1982) 20th Century American ModernistSkip to content
Catalogue Essay: Introduction by Sam Hunter
Sam Glankoff is the kind of overlooked artist of rare and authentic, if idiosyncratic talent, who has appeared frequently in American art and life. He might have languished as an unknown provincial had not the episode of Abstract Expressionism intervened. Glankoff, in fact, came very close to cheating himself of public recognition since he delayed his first one-man show until 1981, when he had reached the venerable age of 87. The show took place in New York at the Graham Gallery, a few months before the artist died, and he refused to attend his own opening, although he was finally prevailed upon to see the installation on its last public day. Nor did he countenance the enthusiasm of friends for the unusual exhibition or the impressive praise it received from art magazine reviewers and from the senior critic of The New York Times. They were undoubtedly rather taken by the phenomenon of a first one-man show by an octogenarian, but clearly liked the work for serious artistic reason as well.
Abstract Expressionism liberated Glankoff's characteristic figural signs and abstract shapes, which he set against a softly resonating color ground in a manner reminiscent particularly of the transitional works of Adolph Gottlieb, before color-field painting became a universal idiom, and even a cliché. His work also recalls Baziotes' enigmatic forms, and even on occasion Kline's freer and more energetic gestural brushstrokes. Glankoff's artistic production began with figurative painting and still life in the twenties, followed by his more incisive and personal woodcuts in the thirties in an expressionist vein. These phases of his art scarcely prepare us for his later flowering as an abstract artist, particularly after 1970. Although his response to Abstract Expressionism was delayed, it provided an important model for expanding his primitivist imagery and mythic preoccupations toward a new and transcending concept of color form. Glankoff was, to say the least, slow to mature and gain confidence in his artistic powers. He resembles Bonnard, who belatedly reinvented a personal, rather mystical Impressionism in the decade of the twenties. Both artists created stylistic anachronisms which more than compensated for their historical anomaly by their expressive forms and original vision.
Glankoff did not exhibit in New York or elsewhere, between 1928 and 1981. His first exhibited work at the Whitney Studio Club was a rather wistful portrait appropriately called Solitude. In the sixty intervening years he focused on earning a living by doing commercial design, including woodcut book illustrations, and science fiction and historical comic strips. Only after 1970 did he devote himself fulltime to fine art and it was then that he began to experiment with his unique print-painting technique, described elsewhere in the catalogue in some detail, which he accurately characterized as "using a printing method to make a painting." Given his choice of means, and his reinvention of an essentially monotype form –the product of pressure applied by hand, and thus mechanically rendered - his ability to retain the dynamics and spontaneity of the brushstroke is significant. His forms are free in appearance, almost unaccountably so in view of the repetitive, systematic method that generated them. Throughout his art, impulse and chance contend with order and control in a dialectic that seems to have been deeply rooted in the artist's psyche.
Generally, Glankoff's configurations vary between polarities of softened geometries in purely abstract, non-associate form and figurative allusion. PP 4203 is a particularly memorable and vibrant image resembling a scrappy, Miroesque creature with out-flung arms, and evoking a spirited dancer or circus acrobat. Its activism sends strong currents of energy to the edges of the sheets, even as the lopsided limbs and anatomy subside into abutting abstract shapes which clearly contest the anthropomorphic associations. A vivid, cerulean blue central mass is set against a carmine color ground in an eye-popping contrast. Despite the chromatic heat and the jittery, exclamatory form, the final effect is one of serenity, in a characteristic Glankoff resolution. Perhaps it is the laborious color layerings that finally unify and pacify the figure-ground relationship, subordinating the sense of lively abandon to the exigencies of an abstract color-space. The effect is not unlike some of the late paintings of Stuart Davis who, albeit more precisely, managed to achieve a persuasive balance of "optical geometry" and a new seductive color space.
The chromatic impact of PP4002 is more sedate and constrained with its black orthogonal shapes, grafitti-like scratch marks, and brown and white mottled ground (or vaguely reminiscent of Franz Kline's gestural brushstrokes and deliberate crudities of handling). Here the divisions of the joined sheets – which can often be unusually disruptive – have the effect of shifting the composition in depth, as if planes were sliding one over the other in a shallow, recessed space. This interesting work and others such as PP1007 which moves close to abstract calligraphy in its figural forms, create tensions between imagery with human associates and the allover pictorial field of uniform accents. The scale of each of the above is moderate without the formal ambition or grandeur of Abstract Expressionism, and there is a curious and, one imagines, deliberate ambiguity between microcosm and macrocosm. His miniaturized and personalized system of signs recalls Paul Klee's universe, though his resonating color grounds carry implications of immensity. Glankoff at his best achieves this intimacy even while building his richly layered color grounds to suggest an expansion to infinity, much like the luminous atmospheric space of Rothkos' color fields.
The figural associations of Glankoff's imagery may have historical sources but for the artist they were also immersed in private and highly personal meaning. On one level they can be understood as masked allusions to his own secret introspections and sense of isolation, and it may be that a powerful motive for his art was, indeed, the resolution of internal conflict. Glankoff stated:
"I have 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, or figures that have any anatomy at all. They resemble figures only by courtesy. What I am trying to do is to take a figure so hidden that it wouldn't be recognized as a human figure."
As an aside, he also observed that his figures seemed to embody an almost inadmissible current of "sensuality," and he expressed some surprise that his impulse had been able to "show itself despite my effort to control or disguise it," significantly adding, "I didn't want you to know my hidden life."
For Glankoff, it seems, even these mild ideograms became self-referential, and vaguely threatened to get out of hand if they were not under vigilant surveillance of a controlling ego. Abstraction, on the other hand, symbolized a more harmonious condition, beyond the reach of a punitive super-ego. However, even that apparently uncompromising geometrical figure, the circle, might betray an unsuspected equivocation and mirror aspects of life for Glankoff. Indeed, it is the undercurrent of a highly personal expressiveness in his forms, both abstract and figurative, that give his art its special emotional resonance. PP4154 is a distended color circle, with a narrow blue vertical core, and oblong, concentric rings of modulated brown-reds and pinks, which suggest both Albers' "Homage to the Square" motif, and Balla's Futurist street lamp. Its geometric stability is undermined and poetically enlarged by mysterious interior forms, with their evocation of such familiar symbolist representations as light as those found in the work of Dove and O'keeffe. The break with a pristine geometry is even more abrupt in PP4159 where the canted concentric bands of deviate red and green refuse to meet. In his notes, Glankoff wrote: 'The circle is a primeval, ancient kind of geometric shape. It becomes satisfying esthetically because of the certain way you handle the particular space you are interested in."
For Glankoff, geometry and the circle, which he used repeatedly at the end of his life, seemed to represent a liberation from his own painful egocentricity, and escape from subjectivism to a "more purely non-objective image," as he put it. Even the circle, however, brought him back to self-confrontation, in another commentary from his notes he observes that circles go beyond formal purity to engage the artist at deeper psychological and cultural levels.
"A circle is undeniably a circle and remains a circle. You can't impose. It is always an abstraction….That, of course, if the secret of Zen. The idea of the circle has a great significance. It is primordial. It is the most ancient symbol. In all the pre-historic caves you'll find just a circle. It has symbolized a constant need to express completion, a culmination."
In the light of the following statement, the dismembered and un-joined arcs of PP4162 become more than an abstract exercise and take on a certain existential poignancy:
"To have completed that curve becomes a consummation. it's like life itself. You supply what's missing. In your life and my life I have supplied a lot things that I have wanted to happen that didn't happen."
Glankoff was a gentle, intensely private, yet articulate man. On his own terms, he achieved mastery of his formal means and a unique expressiveness that overcame his personal reticence and inhibitions. The sublimation of his internal conflicts and crises of confidence was won from a rather demanding and humbling artistic method that required great technical discipline and concentration. Significantly, he succeeded artistically not through flights of fancy, which might have been expected, given his introspective character, but in the avowal of his materials and in the control of his difficult and demanding craft. It is particularly touching that this gentle and timid man transmitted a grace and sociability through the powers of art.
The pleasures of aesthetic communication enabled him to achieve personal integration in a surprising reaffirmation, late in life, of his own elusive humanity. Typically, he expressed his appreciation of the social transformation thus wrought with the innocent delight of the child:
"In art it is the feeling that is paramount. That's the thing that we are looking for, and it's beyond words.. it is the intangible…that is all it is. It can be music, it can be painting, it can be literature, but that's the thing that you are trying to get to, the feeling that you have, that you are transmitting to somebody. If you are successful, if you do transmit it to the other person, and you make him feel the same thing, gee, then it's lovely; then you are not alone anymore, you have found a friend. It's a social thing. It's something that is important in our life, as a species."