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 Leon Berkowitz  (1911 - 1987)

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Lived/Active: District Of Columbia      Known for: abstract, non-objective painting

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Leon Berkowitz
from Auction House Records.
Algonquit #5
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Leon Berkowitz?: JACKSONVILLE ART MUSEUM, ?October 23 to November 23, 1980

Leon Berkowitz is a painter and philosopher and teacher. Any consideration of his paintings should be informed by awareness of the many facets of the artist, for those facets determine the way the paintings work as well as our eactions to them. Like the man, they are many-layered and obsessed with the search for meaning.

Meaning has been out of fashion for quite a while in abstract painting, but it is characteristic of Berkowitz that he has followed his own course, indifferent to the trends and fags of the period. The teacher and philosopher in Berkowitz may have supported the artist in this; the philosopher compelling the quest and the teacher revealing and interpreting its results. He has also avoided the restriction of vision and thought that result from the pursuit of systems or ideas, looking for meaning wherever he happened to be, and finding inspiration for painting in an astonishing variety of places. One series comes from the artist's reaction to the meeting of Begin and Sadat.  He remembers the date and hour precisely. Another expresses cosmic and mystical insights discovered on a Texan river bank. "The job of the artist," says Berkowitz, "is to deal with the serious business of life, and it's damn serious business. I've been looking for affirmative answers and I've generally found them."

The fact that the artist looks for affirmative answers probably accounts for another of the unfashionable aspects of Berkowitz's paintings. They are beautiful paintings, and beauty is another thing that's been out of style in recent years. Even Berkowitz admits that people get nervous when he speaks to them of beauty. "You're not supposed to talk about beauty in art any more, you're supposed to talk about ideas. But I like beauty. I want to make it, to understand it."

In the making of his paintings Berkowitz remains a non-conformist as well. For over twenty years now painters have been working with acrylic paints; petroleum by-products that are water soluble, quick drying and produce the bright, hard surfaces of '60s and '70s art. Not Berkowitz. He began painting with oil paint as a young man and he paints with it still. The use of the oil medium partly explains why his paintings look and work as they do. Light can penetrate deep into oil where the color pigments are suspended in manifold layers. The light comes back from different depths, revealing those depths and producing a sense of vastness and brilliance that acrylic paint cannot match. Berkowitz's paintings are quite literally alive. They will continue to change for years before the paint finally sets and they respond with incredible sensitivity to changes in light. The painter's studio in Washington is dotted with skylights. When a cloud passes over all the paintings in the room are transformed.
It is to light that Berkowitz looks ultimately and originally to reveal the meaning in his painting, just as he looks to experience, not to ideas, to reveal the meaning in life. He reproduces and interprets the actions of light on his canvases through analysis of light's components and recollections of its operations. For that reason, perhaps, his paintings of the past few years are almost exclusively constructed by the primaries - blue, yellow and red, and their complementaries, and in a very high key that is a constant reminder of the white light from which color comes. It is the paradox of his art, and its technical achievement as well, that the colors in the pale tones Berkowitz has chosen, retain their intensity. They have the vigor of much bolder hues.

In each painting color shifts imperceptibly either out from an almost intuited center or, as in the triplych Fall of Red, in a lightening and expanding movement from left to right. The shifts are so gradual and so subtle that even careful study of the canvas surface at close range barely discloses the spots where the colors change. There on the surface of the painting, however, it is easy to see how part of the organizing is done by the nature of the rough canvas itself. The miniscule ridges and bumps on the cloth catch the pigments and arrange them to reflect the structure of the canvas. Berkowitz uses pastels, as well as the oil paint washes, and spots of one of pastel within a field of another color of paint contribute to the optical activity on the surfaces. In all these color manipulations and explorations the painter is striving to retain the luminosity of each color, regardless of the transformation and contrasts that happen in the painting.

In the painting In, On or Of he sets up a shift from blue through red to green. That he succeeds in retaining the luminosity as he mixes the areas of red and green is a measure of Berkowitz's mastery.

It is essential to remember, however, that in Berkowitz's painting the dazzling technical achievement is only the first level of appreciation, and that the technical aspect serves mainly as the vehicle of meaning. For Berkowitz the philosopher and teacher is using technique partly as metaphor for the larger realm of meaning he wants to invoke. And light, illumination, the conflict and unity of light and darkness, are the heart of both the means of his art and its meaning. The painter is looking for sources; for a source, a center. To find it in light is only partly a metaphor. It's a reality of experience as well.

In the paintings from the mid-70s until the past year or so, the color has emanated from a dark -or darker - centered area that reflects the painter's concern with a source. It is relevant in this regard that the paintings are painted from the bottom upward, not down or out from that center. "Like a fountain," says Berkowitz, making an opening, expansive gesture that expresses the mood so effectively evoked by the paintings. The more recent work, on the other hand, beginning with In, On or Of and continuing through his most recent work represented by Light Fall in this exhibition, begin to be organized around a central vertical or spine. In Light Fall there are three verticle areas of deep color, like flames, hovering across a horizontal rectangle. The newer works tend to be smaller, of different proportions, and more introspective and personal. The presence of the hovering vertical relates them more directly to the viewer as well.

Berkowitz's paintings have been compared to the works of Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko both for their shared concern with color and for their meditational qualities. The comparison is particularly apt for it is in their aspect as meditations that Berkowitz's works unify his own dimensions as painter and philosopher and teacher. His concern for meaning, his passion for technique, and his almost ingenuous enthusiasm for interpretation and understanding are summed up in the experience of the paintings as meditations. The old-fashioned fascination with beauty and meaning transcends the technical, and the paintings become the experience, not only for the painter, but for all who behold them as well.

Martha McWilliams Wright 
Source: ARTSPACE: http://www.virginiamiller.com/exhibitions/1970s/LeonBerkowitz4.html


Biography from Marin-Price Galleries:
Leon Berkowitz was born in Philadelphia in 1911. He was a founding member of the Washington Color School, an artistic movement which became associated with Washington, D.C. painters. His paintings evolved from luminous geometric abstractions to fields of brilliant modulated color.

Berkowitz earned a BFA from the University of Pennsylvania and continued his studies in New York, Paris, and Florence. He founded the Washington Workshop Center of the Arts in 1945 and taught there from 1945 - 1965. The workshop was established to make Washington a serious place for the growth of artistic culture through the exchange of artistic ideas.

Other teachers at the Workshop who became leaders of the Washington Color School were Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis.

Berkowitz and his wife traveled extensively from 1956 to 1964. Berkowitz used that time to further his artistic and spiritual explorations. He painted and exhibited in England, Spain, Greece, Wales, and Jerusalem. 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.

Berkowitz had solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Museum of Art in 1969 and in 1973, as well as numerous solo shows at private galleries in Washington,D.C. and New York City. His works are in the permanent collections of the Corcoran, the Phillips Collection, and the MOMA in New York.

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. Berkowitz challenges the viewer to look INTO the color rather than AT the color. 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.

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