Sam Glankoff (1894-1982) 20th Century American ModernistSkip to content
Catalogue Essay: Curator, David Acton
In the work of Sam Glankoff, printmaking truly became a means of introspection and personal expression. For decades this retiring artist made woodcuts and monotypes that he kept to himself, and the most originative of these prints reflect the energy and emotion of Abstract Expressionism.
Glankoff was born on October 30, 1894, in New York, where his father was a milliner. He taught himself to paint when he was a teenager, and attended evening classes at the Art Students League from 1915 to 1917. When the United States entered World War I, Glankoff had no wish to fight. Without telling his family, he registered as a conscientious objector and fled to Cuba. There he struggled to support himself with his art, painting café murals and trading paintings for food. In 1918 Glankoff was falsely accused of involvement in bombings of Florida railroad's and a Miami radio station. He was arrested, tried before a military tribunal, and confined in a Cuban prison for eight months until the armistice ended the war. Glankoff returned to New York, where he worked as a designer for magazines and industrial pamphlets. The artists made his first woodcuts in 1920, attracted to the straightforward process that enabled him to work entirely on his own. When a business associate gave him a book on woodcut history, he began to exploit the splintery character of the wood grain like German Expressionist printmakers. He used woodcut in his professional work as well, to create Illustrations for novels and book jackets. From 1922 to 1928 Glankoff exhibited his work in the annual exhibitions of the Whitney Studio Club, where his traditional landscapes were praised for their expressive style and vivid coloration. During the Depression Glankoff and Frances Kornblum lived in Woostock, New York, and though they never married, they remained together for the next forty years. In the mid-1930s the artist designed covers for CUE magazine, founded by his brother Mort in 1932. He also worked for True Comics from 1942 to 1946, illustrating didactic adventure stories and American and European history for children.
In 1955 Glankoff became the principal designer for "Impulse Items", Kornbum's company, which manufactured children's soft toys, including stuffed animals and characters from popular children's books. He fabricated the original three-dimensional models of hundreds of toys, including the Cat-in-the-Hat and Babar the Elephant. During that period his occasional prints became more experimental. He affixed cords and other dimensional objects to his carved woodblocks, used glue and gesso to build collagraphic textures, and shifted to water-based pigments for softer, transparent colors. When Kornblum died in 1970, Glankoff left the toy business and became reclusive, spending most of his time in his small two-room apartment on East Thirty Third Street. He amassed an extensive library and became interested in Asian philosophy and art and occupied himself with reading, contemplation, and his art. In his small pastels and prints he resumed the imagery he had used in the 1950s. Glankoff began a personal search for a universal formal vocabulary, progressively reducing his imagery to elementary forms like chevrons, crescents, and vectors. He sought primal motifs that defy identification as symbols and eventually selected the circle as the quintessential element of his formal vocabulary.
In the early-1970s Glankoff wanted to work on a larger scale. After seeing a Japanese woodcut polyptych in an exhibition, he began to paste separately printed panels together into larger, compound prints. He developed his own, rather laborious planographic monotype process, printing from thin sheets of plywood or Masonite. He printed by hand, dampening sheets of mulberry fiber paper and superimposing several layers of pigment to infuse his prints with rich color. Then he glued the component sheets together into a compounded image. In 1977 the artist's brother, Mort, met Wendy Snyder, a fashion stylist and editor, whom he later married. Her interest in his work slowly increased his confidence. She took the first steps in arranging the artist's first solo exhibition at the Graham Gallery in New York in 1981, when he was eighty-seven years old. Glankoff died a few months later. In 1984, a retrospective exhibition of his paintings, drawings and prints was mounted at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers.
Despite its inscription, this transitional print was made after Glankoff's retirement, and reflects the increasing scale and basic shapes of his late compound monotypes. With its simple forms and painterly textures, the image captures a sense of spontaneous energy and creates a sensation of movement. Since the forms are generally rougher along their right edges, they seem to be moving toward the left. The effect is enhanced by the arrowlike angle that points down and to the left.
The imagery calls up the painting of Franz Kline, and the centuries-old Japanese painting style of zenga. Indeed, the simple ideographic forms and tawny-colored background evoke an Asian scroll painting on silk, and convey a sense of refinement and age. Though their ragged edges have the appearance of immediate brushstrokes, or a gouged woodblock, Glankoff created this image with a calligraphic relief block. He began this print by preparing the background, scrubbing the thick, white paper with thin casein washes in tones of brown and blue, perhaps applied with brushes and rages. Over this, Glankoff printed the black forms from a a relief matrix that combined subtractive imagery carved into a plywood block and additive imagery built up on the printing surface. He outlined his design on the block, carving into its surface along the right side of the forms, and building up the opposite side with cords glued to the woodblock. These pieces of quarter-inch rope stood above the surface and embossed the paper when printed. Glankoff built up the areas between these boundaries to create relief surfaces. He used modern acrylic gesso (polymer latex), slathering it onto the block like wall plaster and created liquid effects in some areas. As this plaster-like material set up and began to dry, the artist scraped it away from the edges of his forms to achieve the distinctive carved pattern. The rich, saturated, matte black was printed in a combination of gouache, and its opacity contrasts with the translucency of the bakcground. Chalky and particulate, this ink may have begun to dry as soon as it was applied to the printing surface, requiring the artist to work quickly and perhaps encouraging him to overprint.