To take a word and run with it like a color to dive float swim rise fly fall, to be a web of rivers river of light hot as a heart . . . Ida Fox
This bright little word, which slips so often from Leon Berkowitz's lips, is the essence of his painting. It is, in fact, the essential element of all visual -- and possibly spiritual -- perception. Beyond this, the little word embodies the spirit of so much Washington painting.
It is impossible to think of Washington art without constantly running into the name of Berkowitz, who has for so long been at the heart of this city's development as a cultural center. His impact on the Washington Color School, through association with such painters as Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Sam Gilliam -- to mention but a few -- was seminal, and he continues to be a driving force in the Washington art community.
Berkowitz's paintings, developing steadily over some 40 years of dedicated work, have, since the "Big Bend" paintings in the early '70s, blossomed into almost awe-inspiring beauty: great soaring clouds of pure light and color. These paintings were influenced by the intensity and brilliance of color he observed during a stay in Texas. He has since drawn his influences from many sources, as diverse as the magic of southern Wales and the vivacity of his wife, Maureen. And he has brought them all back home, to Washington.
"This is the city of color," says Berkowitz. He speaks deliberately, intensely, illustrating his words in the air with large, graceful hands. "The essence of what is going on in this city is color. It is a tradition. And when a tradition is strong -- like my own Jewish tradition -- you can't kill it.
"My subject is light. You can confine color, but you can't confine light. I blur the edges of my paintings. I remember Gene Davis called me after I returned from Texas, and said, 'What are you painting?' I told him I was painting big pictures, and the edges were blurred. But he said the edges of a painting should be sharp. But I paint light."
One is struck by Berkowitz's gentleness and enthusiasm. At 65, he has the energy of a small boy -- and probably as much fun. Spending an evening with him and his wife is a delightful, if exhausting, experience.
"I was very influenced by the work of the architect Louis Kahn," says Berkowitz. "He was always trying to capture the 'sound' of light. My work is about trying to transform matter into spirit. Think of the artist as an alchemist. The alchemists tried their formula over and over until the universe conformed to the formula. But the nature of the universe wouldn't change. The thing was to change the alchemist. You've got to end up, in any work of art, with affirmation. Art must deal with the essential nature of tranquility. As I have worked every day of my life, my belief in that has deepened. I've always kept notes about my work, and I would write on finishing every painting. And as I read through them I see the same conviction all along. I see so much painting and poetry about trouble and angst. But I'm not like that. The artist's life is dual: his life and the life of his work. They go on independently of each other. You must affirm, affirm."
After so long a search for the essence of art, Leon Berkowitz has come into his own. His work has been receiving national attention and if his dealer, Manfred Baumgartner, has his way, it will soon see international exposure.
"Leon's work," says Baumgartner, "has a certain luminosity about it -- it is almost too beautiful. When people see his paintings, they just gasp."
In Berkowitz's Kalorama Road studio, there is a huge and glorious picture leaning against the wall, a homage to Golda Meir. Seeming to be an ascending globe of golden shimmer, set against rich blues and depthless violets, this painting epitomizes the spirit of his work. The picture was not initially inspired by the Israeli prime minister but by a humble pigeon -- a dead pigeon.
"When I was working in Wales, I came out to the studio one morning and there was this dead bird in front of my white canvas. And I decided to paint the death of this bird -- to feel it. And the painting came out gold. Later, when Meir died, it began to feel like something for her, and I dedicated it to her."
Berkowitz has plans for a special project, if ever he can find the funds: a Berkowitz "chapel." He envisions a large, high-ceilinged room with a rectangular pool of water. Around the walls, and leaning their lofty heads toward the skylight, would be his ethereal paintings of light. "Then people could hear the sound of the light," he says, "and see the stars."
We can only hope that someday Berkowitz will realize his chapel -- Washington would be the richer for it. And it would not be a chapel for the worship of a deity, to the hope of an afterlife, nor to the memory of the dead. It would be a chapel to life and the sheer intoxicating beauty that Leon Berkowitz sees in the lighted world around him.
"Say yes to life!" says Berkowitz, with a smile. "Say yes to life."