Leon Berkowitz is mentioned in the art texts, but not as a painter. He's there because he and his wife, lda, ran the Workshop Center of the Arts where Morris Louis met Kenneth Noland 25 years ago.
Those two artists, say the texts, founded Washington Color Painting, an innovative style, which, like many others, flourished briefly and then ran out of steam. lt's an old story. Leaders open a new field, plunge ahead, explore it, and are later joined by others who focus on refinement.
Berkowitz, 65, who is showing at both the Phillips Collection and the Middendorf Gallery, 2014 P St. NW, is a painter of the latter sort, a polisher content with tiney innovations.
Berkowitz is showing large and atmospheric color field painting. Many visitors will find them light-filled, glowing, pretty. "They are never harsh," says Berkowitz. Few will find them gusty.
They look sprayed, but they're not. Berkowitz, who said yesterday that he feels "at the peak" of his career," superimposes what he calls "viels" of turpentine-thinned oil plant. He has a set of colors he uses time and time again, with slight variations. His palette often marches from red through orange to yellow, and from red, through violet, to blue. Because his soft-edged fogs of color hover, his paintings bring to mind those of Mark Rothko and Jules Olitski.
"The two names l've tried to avoid associating with," says Berkowitz, "are Rothko and Olitski."
ln an interview yesterday, Berkowitz spoke of "curving space," "energy sources," "light," and associated his works with those of Monet. Turner and other masters. "l'be been compared to Vermeer," he said, "l used to come here to the Phillips to look up to the masters. Now l stare them straight in the eye."
Berkowitz, who has encouraged many younger artists and is known here for his sweetness, taught for years at the Workshop Center, Western High School and later at the Corcoran. Though active since the early 1950s, he did not show color paintings here until 1965.
He is having some success now. His larger pictures sell for more than $10,000, in addition to his Middendorf and Phillips shows, he has Chicago. "Everything seems to be coming to me." he says.
His association with Morris Louis is mentioned three times in his catalog - by critic Douglas Davis ("Leon Berkowitz is often compared and related to Morris Louis,") by Viola Herm Drath ("Leon berkowitz has covered a long distance since that fall of 1953 when he and Morris Louis held their first one-man shows,") and by lda Fox, the painter's wife, whose catalog peom is "for Leon B. & Morris L. (Twin Stars:" - but it is not good comparison. Despite the way natural light alters his atmospheric sky-at-sunset colors, Berkowitz is not, and was not, among the most important Washington Color Painters.