Leon Berkowitz was not given to understatement, in art or in life.
"Cathedrals," "Arks," "Unities," "Luminosities" -- these were the sorts of titles Berkowitz applied, with ample justification, to the intensely felt abstract paintings he turned out in series after series from the mid-'60s until his recent illness and his death Monday night. He once described his arrival here in 1945 as an attempt "to change the face of the city, to give it an artistic soul."
It is a fact that there are few artists in the last four decades who gave as much to Washington. He painted his most persuasive, moving works in his Kalorama studio and exhibited them here regularly -- a gift of consequence. Arguably, however, his greater contributions were less tangible. Berkowitz was a rare teacher; generations of students, from kids at Western High School to Sunday painters and dedicated professionals at the Corcoran School of Art, benefited from his inspiring example.
And there is more. Berkowitz was always on the art scene, or, more often than not, the scene was where he was. In 1945, with his first wife, the late poet Ida Fox, and their friend Helmuth Kern, he founded the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, a fabled institution largely because of his ability to bring creative people together. Morris Louis taught there. So did Ken Noland. Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, Jack Perlmutter, Thomas Downing and others who would distinguish themselves and this city were drawn to its light.
It was no accident that in 1956, when an exhausted Berkowitz felt the need for release -- he had been teaching days at Western High (now the Duke Ellington School of the Arts) and running the center in off hours and at nights for 11 years -- the center closed down. By then most of the connections that would produce the Washington Color School, the center's most brilliant offspring, already had been made.
Berkowitz spent the next decade or so traveling and living in Europe -- "We went to Wales intending to stay for a night and ended up living there for 2 1/2 years," he quipped -- but he revisited his adopted city intermittently. It was sometimes said, and certainly is possible, that Berkowitz gave up something in his own art in order to nurture others at the center. But by the time he returned here permanently in 1965 this had changed.
He reemerged vastly strengthened as an artist; the period of his late-blooming mastery had begun. Even so, he continued to teach and kept in close touch with the art world. Voluble, impassioned, a tad eccentric, he was, with his second wife Maureen, a familiar presence wherever artists gathered to dance or drink or talk (especially to talk). The difference was that Berkowitz became something of a venerated figure among younger artists. "He was such an important person in my life," observed painter Suzanne Dolan, a recent Berkowitz student, "and I'm sure this is true of everyone."
Berkowitz's reputation as a painter suffered somewhat from his European interlude. He was absent when New York critic Clement Greenberg succeeded in bringing the work of Louis and Noland to a national audience; the very year he returned, the first museum exhibition of the Washington Color School took place. Berkowitz was not in it. Though it is true he maintained something of the spirit of his younger colleagues -- mainly the passionate commitment to abstraction -- his own work was often wrongly interpreted as an attempt to catch up with them.
Actually, his work was quite different, technically and emotively. Unlike the color-school abstractionists, who stained acrylic paints directly into unprimed canvas, Berkowitz employed traditional oils in spectacularly nontraditional ways. He would prime his canvases carefully with a white ground and then "float" layer upon layer of thin washes of color atop it. The luminosity of his paintings -- resulting from the reflection of light from the white ground through the transparent pigments -- became transcendent as he perfected his craft.
Berkowitz was less concerned with the advancement of abstract painting than with passionate communication; his works became less geometric until, in the early 1970s, all the cool accouterments of 1960s abstraction -- edges, lines, forms, even the slightest brush mark -- were subsumed into misty dissolves of rich, brilliant hues. He was a romantic painter whose true artistic progenitors included 19th-century American luminist painters as well as "sublime" abstract expressionist painters such as Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still, and atmospheric Oriental nature painters as well as western artists such as his revered Vermeer.
"I want to reinvent color -- color as visual and emotional experience rather than as matter," he said. He often spoke of the "artistic epiphany" that occurred one day on Majorca when he "could almost see the wind." From that moment, he said, his great guide was nature. "I let nature teach me about light and movement." Color, light and movement became the technique, subject and content of Berkowitz's paintings. Any one of them can make one acutely, simultaneously aware of a white-hot condensation of natural processes, and of one's inner self.