About the Artist
(1911 - 1987)
Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987)was born on 14 September 1911 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to parents Yettie (née Pries) and Bernard Berkowitz, Hasidic immigrants from Hungary.
He attended the University of Pennsylvania, the Art Students League of New York, the Corcoran College of Art and Design (where he later taught), and the Académie de la Grande Chaumière.
During World War II between 1943 to 1945, Berkowitz served in the United States Army and was stationed in Virginia, where he served as an art therapist to psychiatric patients and became familiar with the psychological methodologies of Gestalt and Rorschach. In an interview with the Smithsonian Institute, Berkowitz recalled that “What I learned from the Rorschach was that it wasn’t the symbols that people saw, it was the abstract qualities that they saw, that were diagnostic, you know, a couple of colors, a concern with edges or the hole….all of these things supported the development of my own aesthetic.”
With his first wife, the poet Ida Fox Berkowitz, and artist Helmut Kern, Leon Berkowitz established the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts in 1945 (also known as the Workshop Art Center or Washington Workshop Center for the Arts). This Center became a cultural catalyst in the city, bringing together leaders in both the performing and visual arts, including painters such as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis, who would later become well-known founders of the Washington Color School group.
He was often associated with the Color School painters, though he adamantly denied this connection, publicly noting his commitment to the poetics of color and the influence of poetry, music, and physics in his work over the more formalistic concerns of the group.
The Workshop Center closed in 1956, and Berkowitz and his wife spent much of the next decade traveling and living abroad, using that time to further his artistic and spiritual explorations. He painted and exhibited in England, Spain, Greece, Wales, and Jerusalem.
Recalling his time in Spain, Berkowitz told the Smithsonian, "I think there is where I really found myself. ..There in Spain, I discovered my own isolation.... I’d absorbed a great deal. The great question in my mind was whether I had found my own voice. In Spain I came to realize that I had.”
Returning permanently to Washington in 1964, he joined the faculty of the Corcoran School of Art. He was promoted to head of the Painting Department in 1969.
By the end of 1966, he embarked on the Cathedrals series. As art critic Sarah E. Fensom writes,
"In these works he 'essentialized' the vertical, painting vertical bands of glowing color that seem to surge off the canvas.... In Cathedrals, the bands of color are painted on either side of a thin, cake-sliver-like white triangle. This slender wedge, wrote James F. Pilgrim,... acts as a symbolic light source. Pilgrim wrote, 'Light seems to move laterally from this core, creating changes in color intensity,' but he added parenthetically that 'the changes actually result from light reflecting through various densities of pigment.' Berkowitz’s real light source was the canvas itself."
“I try to explore it in all its possibilities, the vertical as a cause and result of the color, the shape of the canvas a cause and result of its ascent and inner verticality,” Berkowitz said.
Much of Berkowitz's work is a reaction to the work of the Abstract Expressionist School in New York. Berkowitz was never comfortable with the abstract expressionist painters' dependence on internal psychological states. Berkowitz felt he needed to take inspiration from some external authority, rather than an exclusively internal one. In Berkowitz's own words, "I wanted to work in direct response to nature".
Berkowitz's later paintings marry form and structure with color and light. As light penetrates through the layers of thinly applied paint, crystalline structures emerge. As
"In Berkowitz’s work, there is no spraying or seeping of pigment—and later, hardly any use of shape. Instead the artist developed a method in the late 1960s in which he used large brushes to sweep on a mixture of 10 percent oil paint and 90 percent turpentine. He allowed each layer to dry thoroughly—sometimes using rags or blow dryers—before applying another. He usually applied some 30 to 40 edgeless layers. In the 1970s Berkowitz said, 'I have continued to develop this method to a point where I can distribute the fragments of pigment both in extension and depth, resulting in an additive mixture of colored light. The color is therefore seen in space and changes with the solar spectrum as day moves into night.' This creates what he calls a “dynamic form”—something that doesn’t exist in Color School pictures."
Berkowitz restores to color a "depth of vision" in his best work, and in those depths the viewer discovers the natural forms in the universe - sea, sky, and earth.
In a statement for an exhibition of his work at The Phillips Collection in 1976 he said, “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.”
Berkowitz's paintings are included in numerous private and public collections around the world, including the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, Arizona; Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; James Michener Collection, Houston, Texas; Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York; National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Golda Meir Collection, Jerusalem.
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