For Leon Berkowitz, color was a vehicle for light, and light was a vehicle for spirit. Like Mark Rothko, with whom he is often compared, Berkowitz’s expressive fields of misty color evoke meditative states. But unlike Rothko, whose canvases could imply darker spiritual experiences, Berkowitz’s canvases express luminous transcendence.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Berkowitz studied art at the city’s University of
Pennsylvania. He continued his studies at the Art Students League in New York, with further training in Paris, Mexico City and Italy’s prestigious Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze. The coming war in Europe brought him back to the United States and wartime service in the U.S. Army, where he was stationed in Virginia. With the close of the war, and his discharge from the army, Berkowitz moved to Washington, D.C. He taught art in the city’s high schools until 1969, when he joined the faculty of the Corcoran Gallery School of Art, eventually becoming chairman of the Painting Department. Berkowitz continued to teach at the Corcoran until shortly before his
death in 1987.
In Washington, Berkowitz’s aesthetic vision began to take root and his exploration of expressive color began. With his first wife, the poet Ida Fox, he established the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts in 1945. The Center became a hub of the city’s creative activity in the visual, literary, music and performing arts. In the visual arts, the Center attracted artists such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis. Together with Berkowitz, they would organize the Washington Color School group. Berkowitz’s association with these artists sharpened his awareness of the properties of color; how it worked on the canvas and how it affected the eye.
In 1956 Berkowitz and his wife travelled to Europe, spending most of the next decade there, with extended stays in Spain and Wales. It was in Spain where Berkowitz began to question his aesthetic affinity with the Washington Color School. Their work, he believed, was more aligned with the orderliness of Color Field painting, whereas he was becoming more interested in color’s properties as a carrier of light and its potential to express spirit and invoke time. Moreover, the Washington Color School, and contemporary art in general, was making more and more use of faster-drying acrylic and spray paints; Berkowitz, on the other hand, remained dedicated to the slower, more organic properties of oil paint.
Returning to Washington, Berkowitz embarked on his exploration into these realms of color and light, spirit and time, an aesthetic journey that would continue throughout his life. He developed his signature method of applying glazes of oil color, a time consuming process but which allowed Berkowitz to achieve a visual luminosity not seen on canvases since Vermeer, whom Berkowitz credits as an influence. In 1976, for an exhibition at Washington’s Phillips Collection gallery, Berkowitz wrote: “I am endeavoring to find that blush of light over light and the color within the light; the depths through which we see when we look into and not at color.”
Leon Berkowitz’s work has maintained its significance in the development of contemporary American art. Through his career, he has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors including a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. His work is represented in major collections, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Museum of Modern Art, the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum, the High Museum, the James A. Michener collection and many others.