South Florida’s longest-established fine art gallery, ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries in downtown Coral Gables, registers another entry in regional art history on Nov. 7 when it opens an exhibition of important paintings by Leon Berkowitz.
“Leon Berkowitz: Cascades of Light, Paintings from 1965-1986,” features a cross-section of his most important body of work, ranging from the earlier striped canvases to his mature, misty abstractions.
According to the New Art Examiner, “Berkowitz was the primary impetus behind the founding and development of the Washington Color School,” whose leading exponents include his close friends and colleagues Gene Davis and Morris Louis. The internationally renowned art movement grew out of the Workshop Art Center, an art collective started by Berkowitz and his wife, the poet Ida Fox, in 1947. Other notable artists associated with the workshop, either as teachers or participants, included Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring and Thomas Downing.
The collective was “Washington’s earliest alternative space,” Berkowitz notes, and in 1953 it heralded the direction of contemporary art by featuring a retrospective of Willem de Kooning and the first one-person exhibition of Morris Louis.
“This is a rare opportunity to see a number of major works by this historically significant artist,” said Virginia Miller, the gallery’s owner and director, who gave the artist his first one-person show in Greater Miami in 1978. Paintings by Berkowitz also were included in the three-person inaugural exhibition of the gallery’s Coral Gables location in 1981 as well as in its “Master Works 1969-84” show in 2002.
After travelling for ten years in Spain, Wales, the Middle East and the Arizona desert, Berkowitz changed his style from bars of color to the soft, radiant canvases that characterize his late work. “For months on end I worked in nature, intently observing its secrets,” Berkowitz wrote. “Out of my concern with overcoming the materiality of pigment and the conversion of paint to light, I gave up all earth colors.”
“Light became a vocabulary, perhaps a language,” he said, describing his paintings as “the idea of the continuousness of space and light and form –it’s a time involvement. And it doesn’t exist in any of the so-called color school people.”
“Living and working as I did during those years in Europe in the open air under expanding skies, light itself became an ultimate goal. I became concerned with the dissolution of matter, the fragmentation of light, the conversion of ‘matter into spirit.’ I wanted to look into color, not at color. I was drawn to artists like Monet (his water lilies) and the American Luminists, particularly Martin Heade and Fritz Hugh Lane. Gradually I came to think of myself as a latter-day luminist.”
According to Berkowitz, his luminous, atmospheric canvases carried light, and through their inner light, exuded spirituality. Describing his work for a one-person show in 1976 at the renowned Phillips Collection, he said “I am 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 and not at color.”
Writing in “Art in America” in March 2014, critic Mary Proenza noted that “Though Berkowitz’s hand is restrained, it’s not the “post-painterly” anti-signature of many second-generation Abstract Expressionists. In fact, his sumptuous, canny but subtle painterliness is key to the success of these late works, for which he is best known. In part, that’s because his techniques, stripped of inessentials, align well with his often-stated purpose: to see through color and light a transcendental interconnectedness in all things.”
Like Cezanne and Monet, Berkowitz described himself as developing “a religious sense of nature that grew clearer as these artists grew older. Both let the objective world drop out of their work as they discovered what was real and essential. And of course there was Turner, who surrendered the world of objects to find a single unity about him, a breath of sky interrupted by a single star. Radiance became the milieu in which their work existed, an enveloping containment of light—as though nature were a single continuum.”
Over the years, Berkowitz developed an innovative technique, applying as many as 30 or 40 thin layers of paints with a brush, blotting the layers with rice paper or painting through the paper so that all are blended seamlessly. “The surface of (my) painting is like the surface of my skin,” he noted, because the skin is indicative of the living matter beneath it.
Born in Philadelphia in 1911, Berkowitz studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the Art Students League in New York City, the Academie Grand Chaumiere, in Paris, the Academie de Belles Artes in Florence, and Mexico City College, Mexico, where he first exhibited in 1949. During World War II he was stationed in Virginia, and in 1945, after completing his military service, he moved to Washington, D.C.
He painted and taught art for more than ten years in D.C. high schools and later, in 1969, at The Corcoran Gallery’s School of Art, where he was chair of the painting department. He continued to teach there for almost twenty years, until his death in 1987.
Paintings by Berkowitz are included in some of the world’s most prestigious museums, including Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut; Boca Raton Museum of Art, Boca Raton, Florida; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Golda Meir Collection, Jerusalem, Israel; High Museum of Art, Atlanta Georgia; Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Museum of Modern Art, New York City; National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.; Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida; and Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, among others.
Since its opening in 1974, ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries has been the site of more than 300 art exhibitions, many historic, such as the 1982 show by Washington Color School painter Sam Gilliam, whose painted canvas draped across a 35-foot wall was considered radical at the time. Highlights of key exhibitions may be found under “Gallery” at www.virginiamiller.com.
A public reception for “Cascades of Light” will be held at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries from 6-10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 7th. Located at 169 Madeira Avenue in downtown Coral Gables, the gallery is open from 11-6 Monday-Friday and evenings and Saturdays by appointment.