Except for the fact that profoundly astonishing paintings cannot be predicted, one might have predicted Leon Berkowitz's aptly titled exhibition, "Luminosities," at the Baumgartner Galleries (2016 R St. NW). For nearly 20 years Berkowitz has been making color paintings the sheer emotional intensity of which has been, if this is possible, consistently surprising.
But I sensed an even deeper resonance in these recent works. One can never be altogether certain of the reasons for one's responses to paintings that so envelop the viewer, visually and emotionally, but in any case Berkowitz has been doing extraordinary work in 1987.
The technique and the intention, of course, remain consistent. Since the early 1970s, when he perfected his remarkable method of "floating" layer upon layer of oil paints in thin turpentine washes, Berkowitz's aim has been to bring color and light together in a rarefied though high-pitched equilibrium. But there is a demonstrable, though subtle, formal difference between these paintings and previous Berkowitz works -- the edges here are more firmly defined. This sounds simple, but it isn't; the effect is to concentrate greater energy in the center of the canvases, creating there a sort of weightless but powerful zone of interaction.
"A Deep Yet Dazzling Darkness" can be used to illustrate this effect. Its bottom is an upward pushing arc of orange coloration; its top a downward pushing arc of deep indigo blue; its two vertical edges are inward pushing arcs of blues and violets. The center thus becomes a zone where these colors meet in subtle transition from bottom to top, top to bottom. It is a painting of almost perfect equipoise.
Obviously there is no identifiable image, but one feels here the natural forces of darkness and lightness, night and day. The landscape allusion is made more directly in other works. In the magnificent triptych "Night, Dawn, Day," for instance, one can follow the rising of a sun in the progression from left to right. In the final painting one feels physically bathed in elevating, phosphorescent light. In "Waterfall," there is an almost (but not quite) invisible scattering of flakes of violet pigment -- a "waterfall" of supernatural dimension.
In still other works Berkowitz seems to make more or less direct reference to figuration or to man-made structures. There is a vertical zone of a sort of cherry violet in "Window No. 3," for example, that makes one acutely aware of one's own physical presence, as if standing before a transcendent mirror. In "Solomon's Temple," one feels in subtly defined central rectangles the distant presence of Josef Albers' "Squares Within Squares," as well as that of architectural plans and ancient metaphysical maps.
Berkowitz is, of course, a founder of the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, which played a catalytic role in the growth of the Washington Color School. But his own art developed more slowly than that of his Washington confreres, and is more spiritually akin to certain abstract expressionists, to Clyford Still or, especially, to Mark Rothko. He is a worthy heir, as well, as this show of affirmation proves again. It continues through July 18.
Mokha Laget at Patricia Carega
Mokha Laget's collage paintings, on view at the Patricia Carega Gallery (3251 Prospect St. NW), establish equivalencies between the devices and strategies of visual art and those of musical notation, astrological or nautical charting, or practically any form of measurement or communication, no matter how mundane. It's an affecting mix -- behind this work stands a sharp mind honed on conceptual art, and also the poetic ghost of Joseph Cornell.
Her method is to bring seemingly unlike elements together on the flat surface and then to tie them together in various ingenious and witty ways. In "Sartori and Koan" the central image is a grid each square of which contains light gestural marks on a dark ground, marks that could be dancing figures or ancient hieroglyphs or even starry constellations. To the hard-edged borders of this central grouping are affixed shreds of navigational charts. The border of this border contains navigational marks of the artist's own invention, in a different, larger scale.
There are no precise definitions in this art; the meaning is in the process. It's a worthwhile game, well played. The paintings are pretty, too, in an appealingly offhand way. The show continues through July 22.