Sam Glankoff (1894-1982) 20th Century American ModernistSkip to content
"Sam Glankoff (1894 – 1982) His Life and Art"
Catalogue Essay: Marilyn Kushner
“I was a painter. I was always a painter…that was my life’s work.” (1) Sam Glankoff dedicated his life to art but it was done in self-imposed isolation. Excluding a period in the 1920s when, due to peer pressure, he participated in Whitney Studio Club exhibitions, Glankoff never publicly showed his work nor did he ever try to sell it. Thus, it is not surprising that until late in his career he never bothered to sign or date his art. (2) Indeed, it was not until his first one-man exhibition in 1981 at the age of eighty-six that the public saw the mature work of a New York artist who had made a conscious effort to remain separate from that city's vibrant art community. His compositions, which became increasingly abstract, chart an artist's personal odyssey in search of an image that would represent, for Glankoff, man's primal essence.
Sam Glankoff, the second eldest in a family of four children, was born in New York City on October 30, 1894. While Glankoff's father discouraged his artistic inclinations, his mother took the opposite approach. Primarily self-taught, Glankoff never attended art school for a sustained period of time. His brother Mort stated that as a youth Glankoff would spend hours in his room alone drawing and painting. Glankoff himself affirmed he "always felt that, some way or other, a brush in my hand was the proper thing for me to hold." In fact, his first visual memory was one of attending art museums and standing awestruck before once blank canvasses which had been transformed into objects of infinite beauty.
"There were people who painted these things… they were like me. There was no limit to what a person could do…I related it immediately to me. That I, being part of humankind, could very easily do just that. It was an impression I remember vividly and it gave me an impetus, a meaning, to what I thought was going to be, my life’s work. It was me that was related to the guy that did it. Absolutely!"
These works opened up a new world to the young and impressionable youth. Although Glankoff could not remember which specific artists he preferred in those early years, he did recall admiring one painting of a fisher girl standing on a rock waiting for her lover to come home. Rather than copying the composition at the museum as many painters would do, Glankoff purchased a postcard of the image and chose instead to paint his version at home. Undoubtedly a sign of things to come, this incident indicated his desire, even as a young man, to work alone.
Probably the most important artistic event in New York which took place during these years was the Armory Show in 1913. For the first time American artists and the public were able to see what was being done in Europe without actually travelling there. While Robert Henri's Ash Can School had been producing an American art concerned with social realism, the European painters were grappling with more formal problems of space, color, and time as seen, for example, in the cubism of Picasso and Braque. However, the abstract art of the Armory Show did not influence Glankoff; Glankoff continued to produce images which were related neither to the social realism of the Ash Can School nor to the European abstractions.
Glankoff's art was based upon the traditional paintings which he saw in the museums. While none of his work from these early years survives, we know that both the subject matter of his paintings (still lives, landscapes, and portraits) and Glankoff’s style, which was realistic, were related to the Old Masters. Indeed, at that time, Glankoff thought that the best paintings were those which looked like photographs and he took special pride in one of his oil compositions of a chess set painted in minute detail.
World War II, which commenced not long after the Armory Show had begun to exert its influence upon American art, changed the course of Glankoff's life. With the imminent involvement of the United States in the war, Glankoff's moral sense of integrity, firm individual ism and his refusal to take part in any mass action, compelled him to leave the country. At the age of twenty-one he departed for Cuba and registered there as a conscientious objector.
This was the only period in Glankoff’s life when he sold his paintings. For over three years he wandered the land on horseback, seeking work. In his saddlebag Glankoff stored rolled-up oilcloth onto which he painted portraits to trade for sustenance along the way. He made hundreds of these portraits during his years in Cuba. In one instance Glankoff received two weeks of food in return for a mural which he painted in a small café. The image, done in a realistic manner, was a personification of Cuba as a young woman.
Glankoff’s life in Cuba as an itinerant artist ended abruptly in late 1917 or early 1918, when he, a friend, and their German expatriate companion were arrested on charges of blowing up the East Coast Railroad and the wireless station in Miami. Glankoff, wrongly accused of being an accomplice, was confined as a political prisoner for eight months to a crowded dungeon cell in a sixteenth-century fortress built by de Soto on the isle of Pines. He was released when the second armistice was signed, and in a few months Glankoff was back in New York. All evidence of these paintings done in Cuba before Glankoff’s arrest has been lost. There do exist, however, photographs of two portraits which Glankoff painted after he was released from prison. The income from these works helped to finance Glankoff’s return trip to the United States.
In one portrait, Herr Uppmann, a German cigar magnate, is portrayed in three-quarter view, seated in a chair, staring out at the spectator. When the painting was delivered to Uppmann, his private curator was so impressed that he urged the executive to pay Glankoff six hundred dollars. Not only was this an astonishing sum in those days but it was one hundred dollars more than the asking price. Glankoff then painted a portrait of Uppmann’s American girl friend; a photograph of this painting also exists.
The Cuban experience was a significant factor in Glankoff’s life and the development of his art. Possibly the claustrophobia which he experienced throughout much of his life resulted from his confinement in Cuba. (3) Glankoff asserted that the time spent on the island clarified his own conditions. That statement must be carefully interpreted. In Cuba, Glankoff worked alone. He did not have the opportunity to visit museums where he might have studied the art of the masters. Unencumbered by any external artistic influence, Glankoff was able to define the perimeters of his
Upon his return from Cuba, Glankoff found employment at an art service studio, as he had done before leaving. He quickly became the head artist at this commercial art firm. For a short time, he lived with his brother, Mort, on McDougal Street and then moved to Fourteenth Street, a popular artist quarter. When Glankoff left Fourteenth Street he moved to a studio on Fifty-ninth Street. (4) This location, while no longer near the hub of artistic activity, was near the Anderson Galleries where, in the mid 1920s, the Whitney Studio Club held its annual exhibitions. (5) His closest friends were Karoly Fülop, and Nick Salamon, who lived in the same building on Fourteenth Street and H.O. Hofman, and Julian de Miskey, all of whom were artists. (It was Fülop who introduced Glankoff to Juliana Force, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's friend and associate, and the person who most strongly urged Glankoff to exhibit his art.) Fülop and Glankoff traveled to Gloucester, an artists’ colony; they hired models for group life drawing sessions and exhibited their art in the same shows. In fact, all of them participated in the Whitney Studio Club exhibitions but, in this group, only Glankoff exhibited annually between 1922 and 1928 when the Whitney Studio Club disbanded.
Most of the works which Glankoff exhibited in these shows were paintings of traditional subjects, such as landscapes or still lives; however, in 1925 Glankoff exhibited a woodcut. He had become fascinated by the visual and technical simplicity of the woodcut, and by this time it was his preferred medium. (6) Not only were very few tools required to produce a print, but, more importantly, Glankoff could work alone. He professed that he chose the woodcut to “avoid that relationship that I would have to have with other people.” Glankoff’s early woodcuts were carved in the conventional manner, against the grain. Portrait of the Artist' s Mother, 1923 (illus. 18) was done using this traditional technique. (7) In these prints the chisel has met strong resistance from the wood; the resulting images are hard edged and very detailed, similar to Glankoff's work of the early 1920s.
The style of Glankoff's later woodcuts was largely influenced by Das Holzschnittbuch (The Woodcut Book) given to him in the mid 1920s. Glankoff was especially impressed by the expressionist work of Gauguin, Munch, Nolde, Heckel, and Schmidt-Rottluff which he saw in Das Holzschnittbuch. Rather than cutting against the grain, he discovered that these artists carved with the grain. This was an enlightenment for Glankoff who said that he had always experienced constraints while working in the traditional manner. He now discovered a freedom to be expressive, a freedom to be honest with the wood by working with it rather than against it. An example of this type of print is Two Figures (illus. 19) done by Glankoff in 1925. Rather than hard edges meticulously defining the image, the chisel's curvilinear expressive strokes gouged out the design, leaving evidence of Glankoff's presence as he worked the image into the wood.
Glankoff wanted to reach a state where he was not self-conscious where he had “…courage to dig into a piece of wood and not worry about what is going to happen." The confidence he sought is apparent in Landscape with Woman done in Woodstock in 1928 (illus. 20). Achieving that sense of independence which had become so important to him, Glankoff gouged out the background with a sense of abandon not seen previously in his woodcuts. Though Glankoff preferred the woodcuts, he did continue to paint. In those years, rather than looking to American artists for inspiration, he turned to the European artists, such as Cézanne. Glankoff painted Still Life with Green Vase in the 1920s (illus. 4) .
Glankoff scattered the objects in his painting across the surface of the canvas and described these objects not three-dimensionally but rather by planes. Seeds of Glankoff's later art exists in such as this one. The love of color, so evident in his work of the 1970s, appears in this early still life. Glankoff's lush handling of the oil paint presages his layering of colors to achieve the same richness in his later print-paintings. An interest in circles can also be seen in this early still life, as Glankoff explored the color and size relationships of the circles defining the jug. At this point the exploration of circles was instinctive and did not have the philosophical significance that it assumed later in his art.
Glankoff continued to paint portraits in the 1920s. The Artist's Father (illus. 21) was done in 1922 when Glankoff and a friend were vacationing in the Catskills with the elder Glankoff. Jacob Glankoff, dominating the composition, does not seem to be fully relaxed; his wrinkled forehead conveys a serious consternation. This man, who did not approve of his son's artistic vocation, shows that doubt in his facial expression.
Aspects of this painting reveal that the artist’s preferred style was evolving toward abstraction. Contrary to the definable mass of the figure, the background space remains ambiguous. The jug on the table in the upper right side of the composition does not occupy a realistically defined area, and the chair behind the figure is suggested merely by a flat curvilinear form on the left side of the canvas. Planes intersect in a cubist rendition of volume. Indeed, the portrait is a painting which straddled the thin line between Glankoff’s personal artistic preferences, represented in the background, and a work he created to satisfy someone else’s taste, as represented by the figure of his father.
Glankoff clearly distinguished between the art he created for himself and the art he had to produce to earn a living. He maintained, "My attitude towards that separation was so strong that I never forgot the fact that I was doing that job for somebody…and ultimately to sell it."
While he never ascribed any importance to his commercial work, it was an integral part of his career. In the late 1920s most of his commercial work was woodcut book illustrations. "I felt that was dearer to my heart," he claimed. Through the Art Service Studio, Glankoff's clients included the major publishing firms of McGraw Hill, Random House, Harcourt Brace, Knopf, and MacMillan and Company. Genghis Khan, The Immoralist, Romance of Antar, and East South East were just a few of the novels he illustrated. (8) Perhaps Glankoff preferred doing this work because he could allow his artistic personality to surface more than he might have been able to do in other forms of commercial art, which had to appeal to, and be understood by, a sizeable cross-section of the reading public. The book illustrations, which were woodcuts, were carved in ways similar to the expressive style Glankoff had adopted for his personal art. He also produced color linocuts for books in a style related to contemporary Art Deco (illus. 5).
From 1929 until her death in 1970, Glankoff lived with Frances Kornblum. In 1929 Frances received, as a gift from her mother, a one-room house in Woodstock, New York. Due to the depression economy, in the early 1930s Frances and Glankoff lived in the house year-round. Glankoff said that they led a primitive existence in Woodstock, growing their own food and tending the fruit trees on the property. He even ground his own paints while living in the country."You'd be surprised how time consuming it is just to stay alive as a human being," Glankoff asserted when recalling his life in Woodstock. He did not like the country when he had to live there permanently and returned to New York City occasionally in order to pick-up his commercial assignments.
During this period Glankoff could have joined the Works Progress Administration (WPA) which was actively supporting many artists. Instead, he elected to remain independently employed. Had he worked for the WPA, he would have had to submit pictures periodically to the Administration, with the remainder of his time free to devote to his own work. Glankoff did not want any outsiders judging his art. "I never regarded my work as being public,” he declared. He preferred to be left alone, away from the complications of the art business and scrutiny of the viewing public.
The art world never saw the woodcuts and paintings which Glankoff produced in his attic studio in Woodstock. While his prints remained recognizable as portraits, still lives, or landscapes, Glankoff's style was again changing. His search to express something beyond mere representation of imagery was turning his art towards abstraction. Frances, 1931 (illus.22), displays an expressive quality and technical spontaneity which is much more self-assured than Glankoff's earlier Portrait of the Artist's Mother.
By about 1933, when Glankoff carved Four Expressive Figures (illus. 23), he was beginning to covert his images into abstract sums of basic shapes and patterns. Glankoff was gouging into the wood with the same freedom as the German woodcut artists whom he so admired. (In comparison, there is a technical reticence in the expressive but still restrained woodcut of Mort Glankoff done only five years earlier in 1926.)
This expressive freedom was apparent also in Glankoff's paintings of the Woodstock years. Four Trees (illus. 24) is a casein painting probably done around 1935. (9) Rather than literally representing the forests around Woodstock, Glankoff described the mood which those forests conveyed to him. The vitality of the brushwork accompanied by rich blues and greens suggest a technique impelled by an emotional spirit, such as that found in Glankoff's woodcuts. In effect his instinctive use of the chisel in the woodcuts was reflected in the free brushwork of his paintings.
By 1935 Glankoff and Frances had moved back to New York City although they still spent a great deal of time in Woodstock. Glankoff remained independent of the WPA choosing instead to pursue his commercial involvements. In these years in addition to the woodcut book illustrations, Glankoff illustrated editorial spots for the New Yorker, Family Circle and other journals. (10) When his brother, Mort, founded CUE Magazine in the 1930s Glankoff designed covers for the fledgling publication and created Mr. Petworthy, a cartoon strip character who encouraged patrons to subscribe. Between 1942 and 1946 Glankoff’s primary client was True Comics. Instead of the usual fantasies of children’s magazines, these syndicated stories were didactic in nature, and depicted historical legends from France, England, and the United States, in the sequential form of a comic strip.
An example of Glankoff's narrative commercial work is seen in the original illustration boards for a science fiction comic strip which was never syndicated. (11) The drawings tell the story of a crazy scientist who is suddenly catapulted from 1947 into the year 1977 (illus.25). Glankoff’s commercial art style, as indicated in this comic strip, was very direct, with no extraneous lines or forms to detract from the primary imagery. A similar emphasis upon structure and simplicity is evident in Glankoff's personal art as well. However, the process of purifying the forms in his prints continued to occupy Glankoff for years after he ceased working as a commercial artist.
No art work exists which links Glankoff's figural expressionistic black and white woodcuts (circa 1925-1935) to his abstract woodcuts (circa 1935-1960). One can only conjecture as to why Glankoff's style underwent the important transition as abruptly as it did. The New York art establishment in the mid- 1930s was taking notice of recent European art, much of which was then abstract. From 1927 to 1943, Gallatin's Museum of Living Art, exhibited the work of twentieth-century European painters. The Gallatin Collection contained paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Leger, and Gris. Hans Hofmann began teaching his theories of abstract art in New York in 1932. The Guggenheim Collection of non-objective paintings was shown in 1936, 1937, and 1938. In 1936 the Museum of Modern Art mounted the exhibition "Cubism and Abstract Art" which was intended “as an historical survey of an important movement in modern art.” (12) Klee's In the Grass, 1930, and Picasso's the Studio, 1928, were included in that exhibition. (Glankoff's stick-like figures in his woodcut Four Dancing Figures, circa 1930, resemble the images in both Picasso's and Klee's compositions.) American Abstract Artists was organized in 1936 to support those artists in their struggle to confirm the validity of their non-objective styles. By the late.1930s many Parisian artists fleeing Hitler's domination in Europe immigrated to New York. Included in this group were Surrealists Dali, Breton, Leger, Ernst, Masson, and Matta. Their presence in New York coupled with the energy being devoted to the recognition of European abstract art electrified the city with a vitality that had to touch any artist living there. (13) Glankoff was not an exception and this general situation may have been the link to his abstract imagery.
The woodcuts which Glankoff made upon his return to New York were probably his small black and white watercolor images. (14) Instead of using oil-based wood block ink with its hard opacity, Glankoff had become fascinated by the softer transparency of printed watercolor. (15) He viewed his transition from oil to watercolor as a significant juncture in his art work; for the remainder of his life Glankoff used water-based pigment.
This was a vital turning point for yet another reason. Glankoff's figures no longer resembled the German expressionist forms but rather some of Picasso's more linear figures from the late 1920s. (16) Glankoff’s images were, however, still recognizable as human figures, as would not be the case in some of his later compositions. By eliminating the non-essential, he painted figures which, by virtue of being non-recognizable, could never be misinterpreted. "For instance, when I make a nude, I want it to represent all nudes." Glankoff also sought a way to represent the primitive original idea in his figures; he wanted to capture the essence of the human being. "It is actually something that is separate from the way that a human figure is… and yet in essence… it remains a human figure." This search began in the 1930s with these images and continued throughout his life.
Glankoff's search for the primitive original idea was echoed in the words of two New York painters in the early 1940s. In 1943 Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, in a letter to The New York Times, explained their aesthetic beliefs. They stated,
"Since art is timeless, the significant rendition of a symbol, no matter how archaic, has a full validity today as the archaic symbol had then. Or is the one 3,000 years old truer?... We assert that the subject is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. That is why we profess spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art."(17)
The primitive symbols of Gottlieb’s pictographs in the 1940s are but one example of this search for archaic meaning in an art that transcended the commonplace. Outwardly, Glankoff’s style differed from theirs, yet it was the philosophic aesthetic which linked him to them. He too emphasized the universal significance of his forms.
As the Abstract Expressionists valued a sense of timelessness in their art, there was a timeless quality in Glankoff's personality that intrigued those who knew him well. “He was of every generation,” said Wendy Snyder, Mort Glankoff's wife. Sam Glankoff's specific age was not an important factor in his identity when he related to other people. His search for the universal essence of human existence may be related to this facet of his personality; that part of him which searched to understand people on a basic level of psychological dynamics.
Probably by the late 1940s Glankoff's images were primarily non-figurative. While he still spoke of humanness in his art, a literal representation of the human figure occurred less frequently in his work. "What I'm concerned about is something we project beyond figures. As humanity. Essence. Real guts. Glankoff made an analogy to Eastern calligraphy which he said was a “pattern for design.” Calligraphy was so ornamental that many artists took words like 'God' or holy words that have an intangible meaning and they twisted it around so that it is hard to recognize them as a word…What I did with the human figure… was to distort it so that you could hardly trace the fact that it was originally a human.
These ideas were reflected in a group of small casein studies on paper which Glankoff painted circa 1950 (illus. 7, 26). With the exception of one composition that was obviously a reclining woman, most of the images were abstracted beyond recognition. Glankoff's search for a pictorial language which could signify the soul of human existence intensified. That essence, Glankoff decided at this stage, could be found in circles and semi-spheres which began to appear in his art. For Glankoff, the simple and primitive shape of the circle, with its allusions to the breast and the egg, symbolized woman and the human function of reproduction.
The essential designs still remain with a lot of elimination…so that it finally reduced itself to nothing more than a half circle and some other object that I can hardly describe geometrically.
The circle would assume other connotations in Glankoff's art of the 1970s.
Glankoff made his collage abstract watercolor woodcuts after the casein studies (c. 1950s). These pieces are referred to as collage woodcuts because Glankoff affixed cord, or in a few cases, canvas, onto the woodblock as part of the design. (19) The black lines were printed by the raised cord surfaces while the white ones resulted from the areas in the wood which the artist had gouged out. The imagery of some of the casein studies, in turn, had been abstracted from the representational watercolors and woodcuts of the 1920s and 1930s. The work in illustration 27 is derived from a casein composition (ACP 16) (illus. 26); the artist eliminated unnecessary forms from that earlier painted study. However, as evidenced by these prints, the suggestion of a human figure tentatively began to reassert itself in Glankoff’s art. Perhaps by depicting it again, he had made the decision that he could not hide entirely behind abstraction.
From the 1950s to around 1970, Glankoff produced little of his personal work. By the middle 1950s he devoted all of his energies to his wife’s business. Glankoff found himself absorbed into Frances’s firm out of a sense of responsibility towards her. Glankoff created and fabricated over two hundred stuffed animal and toy designs. These included the original three-dimensional versions of Babar the Elephant and Dr. Seuss's Cat in the Hat.
Glankoff felt the period at Impulse Items was important to his artistic development because he learned to conceptualize an idea and then translate it to a physical reality. This ability benefited him later, when he had to commit to memory the color components of his print-paintings and then slowly reproduce those plans on to paper.
When Frances died in late 1970, Glankoff began to work on his art again. Within six months after her passing he had rearranged his life by liquidating Impulse Items, selling the house in Woodstock, and cleaning out the small, rent-controlled apartment on Thirty-third Street which he had shared with Frances for over thirty years. For the first time in his life Glankoff's financial position was secure enough to allow him freedom to devote his total energies to art. "When Frances died, I reorganized my thinking.” It was during this period of reassessment that Glankoff began to develop his unique method of print painting. While the imagery remained essentially the same as his work in the 1950s (he picked up where he had left off), the scale of Glankoff's work changed immediately and color assumed greater importance in his compositions.
"I had a fascination to make larger things," Glankoff stated. He explained that there was once a time in history when miniatures were in fashion, now large was in vogue. "Big isn't necessarily better," he said, but it was the "contemporary style". Glankoff believed that this idea permeated our society and he found it very exciting.
Take any object you know…a familiar object…a pair of scissors or a toothbrush. You make it larger, larger you know…and it becomes a little more than something. Just imagine them blown up to life size [he said of the woodblocks]. A straight line doesn't become a straight line, it becomes a little jagged. It becomes a little unclear.
Glankoff's visions of what his work should be and the reality of logistics created problems. He did not have a working space in his apartment that could accommodate the size print he was contemplating. (20) Lack of adequate space was the reason that Glankoff did not paint on canvas. He did not have enough room in his small living quarters to keep the finished canvases. Works on paper required less storage area because they could be stacked compactly.) Glankoff's process required a transfer of ink from the plywood block (later he would use Masonite board) to a moistened piece of paper. Even if Glankoff had the space in which to work on such a scale, a wet piece of paper that big would be far too cumbersome to handle alone.
When Glankoff attended an exhibition of oriental woodcuts at Asia House, he saw a print that consisted of sixteen separate woodcuts pasted together to form one unit. (22) Intrigued by the idea that small blocks could be joined to produce a very large work of art, he began to join his panels of paper together and thus devised his unique method of printmaking.
Glankoff's process required many steps. He began with two uniform plywood boards, each of which corresponded in size to the Japanese paper onto which his image would be printed. An image was then carved into the board, bearing in mind that the entire picture was contained not on one block of wood as Glankoff had done previously, but on both blocks. (He approached the composite area of the wood panels as one would approach an entire canvas.) Glankoff no longer gouged out large areas of the wood, as in Japanese woodblock prints. Rather, he carved only the outlines of his forms which, eventually, were defined by color.
Each block was then inked with Glankoff's blend of water-based printer's ink and casein. Water-based ink alone was too transparent to give him the depth of color he sought to achieve. He needed a more opaque substance, Casein, a more permanent paint than watercolor, was "transparent enough not to hide completely the first color but not so transparent that…the second color is lost…”
In order to assure perfect registration, Glankoff had to design a special table for the next step of his process (illus. 28). He placed the plywood board on a surface that had a raised edge at one of its corners. By fitting the wood panel into this corner, Glankoff could be assured that it would not move during the inking and printing process. After the panel was inked, the paper was placed on a moveable tray attached to the table but elevated three inches above its surface. This tray carried the paper across the board, which was into register, until the paper was directly over it. Glankoff was then able to align the paper in the same corner and slide the tray away, allowing the paper to drop slowly onto the panel. Next, this sheet was drenched with water to absorb the ink. It was then blotted with newspaper. Pressure was applied with a roller to complete the transfer of color. This resulted in a print with color pigments not only on the surface of the paper but stained through it as well. The printing process was repeated with each block. Each paper panel usually went through at least half a dozen printings to produce the rich layered color effect Glankoff desired (22).
After a while Glankoff ceased incising lines into the plywood. Instead, using a permanent pigment -- enamel and later acrylic -- he painted the design in black or brown upon Masonite boards which had been placed together to simulate the final composition. Once dried, the design on these boards became the template for placement of the water-based colors. Glankoff then separately inked the boards and printed the design onto each piece of paper. He never painted directly upon the paper. Not only did he prefer the effect he achieved with this transfer process but he chose to remain within the limitations of an indirect procedure. Eventually, working this way made it possible for Glankoff to work large, enabling him to make six-panel and eight-panel pieces. This meant that if each section was inked six times (a conservative estimate for some works), an eight-panel piece would have been through a total of forty-eight printings. Once all sections were completed to Glankoff's satisfaction, they were joined together to form the completed piece. (23)
Glankoff enjoyed comparing his method with Japanese woodblock printing which, after all, had been the inspiration for these works. Similar to the Japanese, his was a multi step process, used watercolor, and his works incorporated many sections into one unit. Nevertheless, Glankoff noted fundamental differences. Unlike the Japanese who employed a separate block for each color, Glankoff used the same block to print each color. More importantly, his method was predicated upon the fact that he could affect the entire procedure by himself, while in Japan a trained artisan executed each step of the process
Due to the character of Glankoff's method, it is difficult to place his late art within traditional categories of painting or printmaking. However, it is not difficult to say that it is neither painting nor printing in their purest senses. Once Glankoff ceased to incise into the wood panels in the early 1970s, his art no longer met the most basic criteria of a woodcut. It might be tempting to classify his works as monotypes because each piece is unique and yet there are several reasons why they cannot be placed into that category. Once a monotype is printed, most of the initial design on the inked surface is obliterated. Usually only one, and at most two or three, impressions can be printed from a monotype surface. With Glankoff's method, many impressions of the composition would have been made without sacrificing the original design because it was permanently affixed to the boards. While each panel was approached as an original, and the board was always reinked, the most essential fact is that the original image was never lost. Finally, Glankoff’s method is not painting. Though he did paint onto the Masonite board and the texture of many of the brushstrokes was transferred to the print, Glankoff’s method remained an indirect process.
How then is his method to be classified? Una Johnson, Curator Emeritus of Prints and Drawings of the Brooklyn Museum, maintained that, as in painting, Glankoff’s works were never intended to be duplicated, yet, the method employed was related to an indirect technique, the monotype. (24) David Kiehl, Assistant Curator of the Department of Prints and Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, stated that since the original image was never lost, Glankoff’s art transcended monotypes but remained a printing process because they were a transfer technique. He asserted that they were printed paintings using the monotype method. (25) In fact, the notion of classifying his work as print-paintings pleased Glankoff because, as he stated, “they were a little bit of each.” Like monotypes, they are unique transfer prints but, as in painting, there is an expressive importance associated with the application of the pigment.
It was while working with the pigment that Glankoff sought spontaneity, a significant factor in his art. Spontaneity is important "not only in painting but in life itself," he said. Everything that Glankoff did was planned within a rigid discipline, and within that discipline he strove for the element of chance. Glankoff was conscious of time -- the past, the present, and the future. He had less trouble relating to the past or to the future; but how, Glankoff questioned, could one embrace the fleeting present? He concluded that one must respond to life by being spontaneous. This same type of unpremeditated action became increasingly important in Glankoff's art throughout the 1970s until his death in 1982. He was forced to deal with the paradox of achieving this spontaneity while at the same time consciously visualizing how his image would look in reverse. His multi-step process made it difficult for him to capture any impression of an intuitive approach. Yet, Glankoff felt he was able to achieve that.
"I'm hoping for accidents to happen,'' he said of his late work. This element of chance was Glankoff's spontaneity. The idea of accidents he linked to Japanese theory which he felt maintained that mistakes and imperfections in one's work were essential. Indeed, their presence imparted a human quality to the piece which, in Glankoff’s art, could be perceived in the inking procedures, either when the ink was applied to the boards, or when it was transferred to the paper. Glankoff's greatest expressiveness was in these processes. A sensitivity must be developed not only towards the emotional content of that brushwork but also to the manner in which the pigment was pressed onto the paper. The density of the ink or the discernable amount of pressure applied to various surface areas reveals the physical presence of the artist as he worked the print.
Once again Glankoff's references to oriental art helped to explain his intentions. He said that when an artist made a Chinese ideogram, what he wrote and even his very act of writing became an extension of his being. It was a direct manifestation of his personality and his philosophy. Therefore, the brush was an extension of the person. Glankoff wanted to achieve this but felt that his indirect method prevented him from being completely effective. He declared that he was most able to capture this feeling when he was actually handling the ink. Glankoff sought this expressiveness in PP1013 (illus. 29). Not only does his brushstroke have emotive qualities, but the design itself is reminiscent of oriental characters.
Not only did the expressive quality of his work reveal at times, his inner being, but the entire process of Glankoff's print-paintings personified his philosophy of life. His was a simple existence in which he was not lacking for any necessities, but he was also not surrounded by expensive possessions. He lived frugally as a monk in a monastery. Similarly, even if his method was indirect, it was simple and it entailed no expensive machinery for which he was responsible. He never used a printing press. It had always been this way. After all, the reason Glankoff chose woodcuts in the 1920s was because they were inexpensive to make.
After Frances died, Glankoff lived by himself. He did not have many friends and was considered by those who knew him, to be a loner. “It’s curious,” said Orrie Armstrong, “That a man, any human being, should have so few contacts that you can’t go to somebody and say, ‘What happened at this period of time?’“ (26) In the same manner, Glankoff was a loner when he worked, unassisted by anyone. Glankoff compartmentalized his life. “I always saw each part of my life as separate from the other parts.” He also compartmentalized his art into many successive procedural steps. (27) Finally, Glankoff had an academic hunger which was evidenced by his extensive library. “The philosophical and intellectual element is fascinating to me. I’ve read considerably…and I still read. I’m fascinated and I love it.” An analysis of the content of Glankoff’s art reveals a similar import ascribed to knowledge, from the historical comic strips in the 1940s to the emphasis upon oriental thought in his print-paintings. And yet, he also felt that the intellectual element repressed the desire he had for spontaneity, both in his art and in his life.
Throughout his life Glankoff constantly struggled between emphasizing the expressive content of his work and hiding his feelings behind a purely non-objective form. This conflict can best be understood through an analysis of color and two important thematic elements of his late art, the circle and the human figure. Eventually, the guise of these two forms would reveal that the expressive artist who wanted to celebrate "humanness" triumphed. However, it did not happen until the end of Glankoff's life and not until he had undergone an important transition that ultimately freed him.
That transformation occurred when he met Wendy Snyder in 1979, who helped him emerge from the cocoon of abstraction that, for so many years, had been attempting to enclose him. Slowly, through months of discourse, she sought to make him feel comfortable with the expressive content of his art. In effect, she freed him. By the end of 1981 he began to put a "W" beneath the "SG" when he signed his works. At last he was released from the struggle which had dominated his art for so long. "I'm much more open now and I'm more satisfied with myself. To feel liberated is really an accomplishment…I waited a long time."
Color was a prominent consideration to Glankoff throughout the 1970s. "The color sings, but quietly, like a well-behaved kettle," said The New York Times art critic John Russell of Glankoff's print-paintings shown at the Graham Gallery. (28) Artnews referred to the “luminous fields of color” in Glankoff’s work. When, in the 1970s, Glankoff discovered the strength of the handmade paper he employed, he was overjoyed with the realization that there was "no limit to the amount of color that I could use." There was no limit to the number of impressions he could make. In addition, the shape of that color assumed its own expressive quality. Then he could produce a work such as PP 2009 in which color and shape had equal importance.
There is a distinction in the late work between Glankoff's use of brilliant colors and his use of more subdued tones. He said that the subtle colors manifest and effort to repress the brilliance. Indeed, he could create a print-painting with a radiant combination of violet, red and yellow while concurrently creating one with a color scheme based upon dull blues and blacks. This variance of color schemes in Glankoff’s print-paintings was one manifestation of the dual nature of Glankoff’s art of the 1970s.
An investigation into Glankoff's statements reveals the levels of significance that he ascribed to the circle. His search for the ultimate non-objective form led him to this pure geometric shape. Glankoff was intrigued by the limitless variations of colors and shapes that the circle presented. (illus. 11,12,43,44). Yet he was aware that his art could never become completely non-objective. He asserted that “it is hard to get away from… the human effort of translating form to what is familiar to us… so this effort of mine to look for pure non-objectivity becomes a little silly." The circle was a pure shape that could never be mistaken for an object.
Glankoff felt his circle was an “honest effort not to reveal myself. There’s nothing there, it remains a circle, no narrative at all.” In these instances, the circle was a geometric form which could mask the artist from a public that might wrongly interpret his art. The circle helped fulfill his desire to remain isolated so that no one would know him. It surrounded his innermost thoughts, forming a boundary between them and the outside world.
Glankoff would find a quiet tranquility and peace in his circles, much like the serenity he discovered in Zen with its calm acceptance of life. By reaching out to experience a composition such as PP 4154 (illus. 11), the subtlety of these feelings becomes apparent. These circles hover calmly in their space; they seem to be asking the spectator to allow his instinctive thoughts the freedom to surface.
By the 1980s Glankoff felt he was beginning to exhaust the artistic possibilities of his circles and he turned to a more positive rendition of the human figure. Glankoff's treatment of his figures paralleled the metamorphosis of his personality during the 1970s. Both he and his art became more open, less inhibited, and less restrained.
This development must be traced from the early 1970s when Glankoff produced PP 4055 (illus. 30). The entire composition was composed of circles and triangles, basic geometric forms. Using the figure as a point of departure, Glankoff had arrived at an abstraction that signified, for him at the time, the essence of man. He identified this type of human figure with that which primitive man, without any knowledge of anatomy, might have painted on the walls of his caves The figure represented a basic reality or the pure essence of reality.
However, there were less abstract figural works in Glankoff's art of these same years. Images such as PP 4027 (illus. 31) are more intelligible as human beings yet, these figures remain very generalized without much attempt to differentiate between male and female. Even when Glankoff obviously depicted a woman as in PP 1053 (illus. 32), he did so with a minimum amount of description. These women have no personalities.
But Glankoff’s portrayal of the female form changed. While sexuality in his art was always important to him, after he met Ms. Snyder, the women in Glankoff’s compositions gained a sense of respect. She is proud figure in PP 2134, standing tall with her head high (illus. 33). One only need compare PP 4059, 1974 (illus.8), with the last image of a woman that the artist devised: painted on Masonite, it was never printed (illus. 34). The female reclining figure of 1974 lies limp with an amputated leg and what appears to be a broken neck. It is an image of pessimism. The woman of 1982 possess dignity in her erect posture. She is a woman who is accorded respect.
…it’s the relationship that you have with another Human being that’s important. It’s more important than working… It’s more important than doing the most elegant, most beautiful, most creative thing…I love more people [now] and I love myself more too.
Not only did the countenance and stature of this last image communicate Glankoff’s new positive attitude towards women, but it also communicated his new positive attitude towards life in general.
“It’s a sort of a miracle in a way,” said Mort Glankoff of his brother’s change in his personality as a result of knowing Ms. Snyder. His present life, said the artist in 1981, was more complete and satisfying "than a return to any period of the past." Glankoff's approach to the human figure changed as well. "Lately, I've been trying to look at the human figure from a little different point of view." They have more emotion than most of the figures in his previous print-paintings. "I'm trying to find something within the psyche of the person. Not looking at him as an object… but see something beyond…” Glankoff finally felt free and secure enough to delve openly into man's, and his own, expressive being. His figures became joyous (illus. 17). At times, and especially in Glankoff's last work, they dance with outstretched arms and open fingers. Gone is the discord of earlier images replaced by a celebration of life itself. Glankoff sang of the freedom that he found his life in the only way he knew -- through his art.
In 1970, after a hiatus from his art of more than fourteen years, Glankoff continued to design in the style which defined his work in the 1950s. “I felt I could go on from that point,” he claimed. Because of his independent spirit, Glankoff did not care if the abstraction of those years was no longer consonant with art in the 1970s. The path which led him into this abstraction would return him to figural representation in the 1980s. Again, Glankoff followed his instincts which had their basis in the work of the Abstract Expressionists twenty-five years earlier. His art remained true to that foundation. Paradoxically, if he was a precursor, the art of the 1980s has a closer kinship with Glankoff’s themes and searchings.
Glankoff's career traversed many roads. Alone, though not necessarily in total isolation, he searched for the essence of man. That quest began with the figurative early woodcuts which, through their brutal carving and simplified forms, recall the German Expressionists in thei r emotional outcries. This expressionism, which was inextricably linked to his search for man's essence, never left Glankoff's work (although he did try to mask it at times.) Its thread can be traced from the colors and brushstrokes of the casein studies, through the tentative re-emergence of the human figure in the collage woodcuts and finally to the print-paintings where the human figure emerged rejoicing. Glankoff tried to enclose himself within his circles so that no one would know him, yet he could not do it. Perhaps his severe claustrophobia, a fear of being shut into inescapable spaces, such as circles, contributed to his failure to become completely abstract. Neither was the essence of humanness to be found in these circles. For Glankoff, that essence ultimately was in the human figure and thus, the expressive image was victorious in his art. A joyous Glankoff declared, "… I realized the real essence; the real meaning of life was…to be part of the human race.”
Sam Glankoff needed his art to help him discover this essence. His paintings expressed for him what words could not. The paintbrush probed for him in a manner he would have been unable to do through spoken or written communication. "I heard a beautiful thing the other day,” he said toward the end of his life. "The thing you should try to capture is the gap between thinking and words…” He harnessed that feeling in his art and he wanted the spectator to grasp it too. "I don't think anything [need be perceived in his art] more than a feeling." Glankoff felt that if he was able to transmit that then he was not alone anymore because he had found a friend. The meaning of life was not to be found in isolation but in relationships with others. Glankoff's own words best express the most fitting conclusion that can be made about this artist who spent a lifetime searching for, and in the end, found that exalted acceptance of life which had become so valued by him: "I'm vulnerable and here I am. I'm going to show it and I don't care. I’ve changed completely you know. I’m not afraid.”
I would like to express my appreciation to Wendy Snyder, without whose knowledge of the details of Sam Glankoff’s life this essay would not have been possible. My thanks go to Ms. Snyder, Jeffrey Wechsler, and Phillip Dennis Cate, for their generous support of my efforts in this endeavor.
All statements in this essay ascribed to Sam Glankoff were derived from transcribed conversations between the artist and Wendy Snyder from 1979 to 1982. Those statements ascribed to Mort Glankoff were derived from conversations which this author had with Mr. Glankoff in February, 1984.
1. All statements in this essay ascribed to Sam Glankoff were derived from transcribed conversations between the artist and Wendy Snyder from 1979 to 1982. Those statements ascribed to Mort Glankoff were derived from conversations which this author had with Mr. Glankoff in February, 1984.
2. Glankoff retroactively signed and dated the entire corpus of his work in 1979. Occasionally, when he gave a piece of his art as a gift, he would sign and date it with the year he gave it away, not the year he created it. Therefore, all dating in this essay is approximate and open to future research and revision.
3. This was postulated by Orrie Armstrong, Glankoff’s companion throughout the 197Os.
4. This studio was in the same building as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney's studio, however, Glankoff never became acquainted with her.
5. The art galleries did not begin to locate in this area until later.
6. Perhaps Glankoff exhibited a woodcut in 1925 because, as Whitney Museum archives indicate, there was a woodcut show at the Whitney Studio Club during that year.
7. Excepting Solitude in the 192Os, a painting which appeared in a Whitney Studio Club show, Glankoff's works were not titled until the 198Os.
8. Glankoff also signed his name Glanckopf and “Sam’l Glanckoff”.
9. Many of the casein designs of the 1930s were also done in the print medium.
10. Although Glankoff’s drawings for these editorial spots still exist, he never indicated for which magazines they were done. Further research is necessary to determine their original publications.
11. An examination of the books in Glankoff's library reveals that he was an avid reader of science fiction. This comic strip, therefore, might have had particular significance to him.
12. Alfred Barr, Cubism and Abstract Art, New York, 1936, 9.
13. For a more detailed account of these years in New York see Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting, New York, 1970, 5-43.
14. There are some woodcuts of this phase which have color. Anthony Kirk, Director and Masterprinter of Eldindean Press, New York, suggested that years later Glankoff may have added color to blocks previously carved rather than carving new images when he merely wanted to explore the use of pigments.
15. Glankoff always preferred the prints of his images which had more transparent qualities. Even when he was using the opaque oil ink, his favorite prints were those in which the ink was not as dark, thus giving the woodcut a more atmospheric quality.
16. For example, Picasso, The Studio, 1928.
17. Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko, The New York Times, June 16, 1943 as quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, 545.
18. Una Johnson has suggested that these might be called “woodcut monotypes” because the blocks appear to have been inked and printed in a painterly way as one would ink a monotype.
19. At that time, he wanted to make prints which were approximately two feet by three feet. The size of his print-paintings would reach four feet by five feet in the early 1980s.
20. This determination not to collaborate with other artisans could be traced back to the early 1920s when Glankoff originally chose the woodcut medium use he did not have to rely upon anyone else to help him produce his print.
21. This exhibition may have been at Japan House. Glankoff never was specific about the gallery, at times referring to “Asia House” and at other times referring to “Japan House”.
22. By choosing a lightweight Japanese paper which could absorb less than a heavier rag paper, Glankoff was assured that the colors would be stratified, giving him the layered effect, he sought.
A close examination of his print-paintings reveals many levels of color above the paper surface.
23. Lack of adequate space in his Thirty-third Street apartment precluded Glankoff from joining together any print-paintings which were larger than four panels. This did not prevent him from designing six-and eight-section pieces with the intent of someday uniting them. He finally was able to do this when he moved into larger space on Lexington Avenue in 1981.
24. Una Johnson in a conversation with Wendy Snyder, May 5, 1984.
25. David Kiehl in a conversation with Wendy Snyder, May 5, 1984. (The term “print-paintings” was first suggested by Elke Solomon.)
26. Orrie Armstrong in a conversation with Wendy Snyder.
27. The theory of a correlation between the process of Glankoff’s art and his philosophy of life was first advanced by Wendy Snyder.
28. John Russell, The New York Times, October 9, 1981. Glankoff was so pleased with this statement that he wrote a note of appreciation to Mr. Russell.
29. Artnews, December, 1981, 175.