Leon Berkowitz

American, 1919 - 1987

Cathedral #11, 1968, oil on canvas, 90 x 72 inches

The Pool I, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 110 x 58 inches

Cathedral #13, 1968, oil on canvas, 90 x 72 inches

Black Light, 1966, oil on canvas, 82 x 70 inches


Leon Berkowitz was born in Philadelphia but is best known as a Washington painter, having lived there for forty years.  He studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the Art Students League in New York, as well as internationally in Paris, Florence, and Mexico City.  He served in the Army during World War II and was stationed in Virginia.  After completing his service in 1945, he moved to Washington, D.C.  He painted and taught art in D.C. high schools for over ten years and in 1969, moved on to teach at The Corcoran Gallery’s School of Art, where he was chairman of the painting department.  He continued to teach there until his death in 1987.

Berkowitz’s first wife was the poet Ira Fox Berkowitz.  Together they founded the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts in 1945.  This center became a cultural catalyst, bringing together prominent artists in both the preforming and visual arts, including Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Gene Davis.  These artists would later found the Washington Color School group.  The center closed in 1956, and Leon and Ira spent the next decade traveling and living abroad.  During this time his painting took a new direction, and it is this later work for which he is most well known.

Berkowitz’s work had become completely abstract by the 1970s, suffused with mists of light and color.  He was often associated with the Color School painters, though he adamantly denied this connection, instead asserting that his floating washes of color carried light, and through this light, a spiritual presence.  The intense white ground used as a primer for his canvases does indeed create a color-drenched, luminous, atmospheric effect.  Berkowitz described his goal in painting as,

“endeavoring to find that blush of light over light and the color within the light; the depths through which we see when we look into color and not at color.”