Louis Schanker was born in New York in 1903. While he was still a teenager, he quit school and joined the circus. Two years later, he worked as a farm laborer, on the Erie Railroad and on a steamship. He also traveled across the country on the railroad as a hobo.
In 1920, Schanker returned to New York and began part- time studies at Cooper Union, the Education Alliance and the Art Students League. Schanker’s first prints, which he made while he was still a student, were Social Realist style etchings. He produced a handful of lithographs in 1928 that reflected his inclinations to Modernism and his interest in the work of the School of Paris.
As a member of the Works Progress Administration, Schanker began a series of wall murals in 1924 for Neponist Bay Hospital on Long Island. He also completed murals for the radio station WNYC and for the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
Schanker was one of the founding members of the American Abstract Artists group and in 1935 he became one of the “Ten Whitney Dissenters”. Also during 1935, he produced his first woodcut using seven colors printed from seven blocks. Studying German Expressionism and Japanese woodblock prints, Schanker developed his own style and technique in the medium of woodcutting.
In 1938, Schanker gained employment with the New York City WPA/FAP graphic arts division and when the workshop moved, he took over as supervisor of color block printing, remaining in the division until 1941. Schanker also taught printmaking courses at the New School for Social Research. Along with many other artists, Schanker helped to organize Studio 74, an experimental workshop modeled after Atelier 17.