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Subtle and misty transitions: Leon Berkowitz’s ‘Unity’ paintings open at David Richard Gallery

“Golda” is a 1979 oil on canvas by color field painter Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987). (Courtesy of David Richard Gallery)

“Golda” is a 1979 oil on canvas by color field painter Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987). (Courtesy of David Richard Gallery)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Although he was a founding member of the Washington Color School, a branch of Color Field Painting, Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987) never fully embraced the association. For one thing, he insisted on sticking with oils after many of his peers had switched to acrylic. He said he preferred the “visually seductive resonance and depth” he could obtain with oil. And though many peers considered themselves proponents of “pure” abstraction, Berkowitz also cited poetry, music and physic as influences in his work instead of simple formalistic concerns.

“Unity,” a show of Berkowitz’s abstract paintings from the 1970s opens today at David Richard Gallery in the Railyard Arts District. The paintings, according to gallery co-owner David Eichholtz, illustrate the naturalistic quality of Berkowitz’s abstractions: “subtle and misty transitions of color evocative of the gradual shifts in the forces of nature and the inspiration for the series.”

A Washington painter
Born in Philadelphia (some sources say in nearby Trenton Township) in 1911, Berkowitz is considered a Washington, D.C., painter, having spent 40 years, most of his adult life, in the nation’s capital.

Berkowitz studied at the University of Pennsylvania, New York’s Art Students League and in Paris, France, Florence, Italy, and Mexico City. During World War II he was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Virginia. In 1945, after completing his military service, he moved to Washington, D.C. Berkowitz and his first wife, the poet Ida Fox Berkowitz, founded Workshop Art Center in Washington, D.C., in 1947. It was a collective that fostered creativity in the arts through classes, lectures and exhibitions. Berkowitz served as its director during its seven-year history. Many important artists were associated with the workshop, including Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring and Thomas Downing, all of whom, along with Paul Reed, would become known as the Washington Color School.

In 1953, the workshop hosted a retrospective exhibition for Willem de Kooning, which established his relationship with Berkowitz. The Workshop Center closed in 1956, and Berkowitz and his wife spent much of the next decade traveling and living abroad, primarily in Spain and Wales. It was during this sabbatical from his life in Washington that his painting took a new direction, and it is this late work for which he is best-known.

Returning to Washington, D.C. following the decade-long European sabbatical, Berkowitz painted and taught art for more than 10 years at American University and Catholic University. In 1969, he joined The Corcoran School of Art, where he was chairman of the painting department. He continued to teach there for almost 20 years, until his death in 1987.

The Unities

According to Eichholtz’s description, “The Unities,” Berkowitz’s series of paintings that began in 1970, “are best characterized as ethereal and diffuse, with elegant and slow transitions from one color to another and pure abstractions that create a sense of harmony and unity.”

‘Unities 67” is a 1972 oil on canvas by Leon Berkowitz. (Courtesy of David Richard Gallery)

‘Unities 67” is a 1972 oil on canvas by Leon Berkowitz.
(Courtesy of David Richard Gallery)

The series was inspired by his travels throughout Europe during the late 1950s through early ’60s, where he worked to find himself through and within nature, to search for the unity of nature and himself, Eichholtz said. “Observing the melding of earth and sea with sky, the rising and setting of the sun combined with the rising and waning of the moon, Berkowitz realized that nature was a continuum, a flow of its own forces. Color became his language and the gradual migration from one color to the other without hard boundaries was both mimetic of what he observed in nature and became his composition,” Eichholtz said.

“He was quoted as saying, ‘I wanted to look into color, not at color,’ which he achieved through radiance, by capturing and harnessing the energy of light within color. Thus, his paintings went beyond the material properties of color to something transcendent, more spiritual, like a portal looking into ones soul,” the gallery owner commented.

Berkowitz’s artwork is included in the permanent collections of many museums, including Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.; National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; and The Phoenix Museum, among others.

David Richard Gallery specializes in post-war abstract art, including abstract expressionism, color field, geometric and hard-edge painting, op art, pop art, minimalism, feminism and conceptualism in a variety of media. Featuring both historic and contemporary artwork, the gallery represents many established artists who were part of important movements and trends that occurred during the 1950s through the 1980s on both the East and West coasts.

The Berkowitz exhibition will hang through Jan. 25.