Although Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987) is associated with the Washington Color School, he had been traveling abroad for about a decade when a 1965 show gave a name to the D.C. school. He rejected any connection to the group’s concerns, claiming that his work had more to do with nature and poetry. However, Berkowitz was instrumental in bringing together many of the artists who would form that group through the Washington Workshop Center (1945-56), a mecca for cross-disciplinary fertilization that he founded with his first wife, poet Ida Fox. He accompanied Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland on a famous 1953 visit to Helen Frankenthaler’s New York studio. Unlike his cohorts, he did not adopt Frankenthaler’s “staining” of unprimed canvases with poured color or employ acrylics but, like them, he considered expansive fields of color ample content, emphasized two-dimensionality in his work and eliminated bravura brushwork.
This exhibition of 10 large canvases (all oil, made between 1968 and 1986) was an engulfing experience of color as light. While two paintings from 1968 feature stripes, the majority of the works present mists of transitioning, super-saturated spectrum colors whose radiance seems equal parts existential affirmation and visual effect.
Though Berkowitz’s hand is restrained, it’s not the “post-painterly” anti-signature of many second-generation Abstract Expressionists. In fact, his sumptuous, canny but subtle painterliness is key to the success of these late works, for which he is best known. In part, that’s because his techniques, stripped of inessentials, align well with his often-stated purpose: to see through color and light a transcendental interconnectedness in all things.
Within/Without 14 (n.d.) is typical of his mature work. With a palette of primary colors, he brushed and pooled turpentine washes across the 74-by-92-inch canvas. Although blotting with rice paper between layers erased the brushwork, he drew into the wet washes with oil pastels, making delicately deliberate marks that at first read as residue from the washes. The combination of washes and pastel results in color that’s both highly pigmented and transparent enough to reflect maximum light from the primed canvas. Where Berkowitz wanted to diffuse this luxuriant color, he painted vapory passages of white, so that the color seems to burn like the sun through atmosphere. This effect is emphasized by two small orbs that seem to glow through shrouded orange, magenta and blue, and recalls the foggy, watery landscapes of Turner and Monet.
Berkowitz employed similar methods in Golda (1979), named for former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Like many of the paintings in the show, the edges create a portal-like frame around the central activity. In this case, low-key violets and greens along the edges set up an expectation of deep space in the center, exactly where an incandescent swath of yellow-by far the warmest, most saturated area-thrusts to the surface, asserting color, light and flatness as dominant concerns. Two barely discernible stacked discs, one warm and one cool, seem to emerge from a crescent of violet-white at lower center. The sensation of these rising shapes, and the painting as a whole, is that of the formation of a nascent being. Owing to the rigor, intelligence and sincerity of Berkowitz’s vision and process, this unembarrassed beauty entirely escapes sentimentality.