By Richard Speer
Taking in the Technicolor orgy that is Virginia Miller’s affectionate and nuanced 21-year survey of the paintings of Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987), one confronts just how thoroughly the metastasis of post-ironic eye candy has been assimilated into visual culture since Berkowitz’s heyday. In entire sectors of contemporary art (Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Peter Halley, Beatriz Milhazes, Ryan McGinness, Omar Chacon and Albert Contreras, for starters), not to mention graphic design, advertising, online gaming, cartoons, fashion and cosmetics, we have witnessed the rise of a chromatically gonzo sensibility—replete with fluorescents, pearlescents, metallics, interference pigments, glitters and HDTV pixels—that would have made even the most outré of yesteryear’s Pop, Op and Color Field artists blush in abject mortification. Berkowitz was proto- all that. He shone the light and led the way. With his bedazzling, yet ethereal, compositions (think Las Vegas meets Big Sur), he bridged a Neo-Impressionist approach to opticality with the spiritualism of AbEx and the perception-obsession of the California Light and Space movement. This rather astonishing integration is almost tangible in the exhibition at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, as are ripples of the man himself, with his inevitable human quirks.
Entering the space, viewers are confronted with a bubble-gum funhouse of pastels and jewel tones emanating from stripe paintings such as Duality #15 (1970) and Transition (1979). An untitled painting from 1966 forces a false perspective that unsettles the viewer’s kinesthetic orientation, as does the ramp-like Galilee (1965). Cathedral #5, with its extreme dimensions (113 inches high and only 19 inches wide), looks like a stained-glass window that got sucked through a black hole and got excreted out the other side, distorted into a flattened-pancake grotesquerie of its former self. Everywhere all around are the kinds of colors that made Berkowitz into an unapologetic “Candy Man,” who could, like the song says, “take a rainbow, wrap it in a sigh, soak it in the sun, and make a groovy lemon pie.” Despite a penchant for saturational surfeit, the artist was decidedly not interested in retinal effects as ends in themselves. When he deployed the pattern-based tricks of Op art, he did so with another aim in mind: the poetics of light.
In fact, anyone who visits this exhibition will not be surprised to learn that poetry was a major influence on Berkowitz. He was married to poet Ida Fox, was friends with Robert Creeley, and, in honor of his work’s affinity to the poetry of nature worship, was feted in 2008 and 2009 with posthumous exhibitions at the Gary Snyder/Project Space in New York. He was fond of quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, who, in “God’s Grandeur,” gave voice to qualities that Berkowitz’s paintings say without words: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…Nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” From the advent of his exhibition history in 1949, the artist made it his mission to transmute the poetic Geist, the esprit d’espace, the very atmospherics of far-flung locales into rapturous distillations in oils. He lived and traveled variously in Mexico, Arizona, Italy, Greece and France, to enumerate only a smattering, and it is tempting to see his bold colors evincing the blazing Mediterranean and Mesoamerican sunlight, harsh and honeyed and crowned always in azure. His work was informed by other moods of light, too: thick and diffused by humidity in his native Pennsylvania and in Washington, D.C., where he lived and taught for many years; and the mystical light of Wales, about which he effused, “There is a kind of efflorescence in the light there, as if it were actually made of rainbows. And it’s partly, I believe, because of the water vapors in the air, which split the light.” (Haifley)
As his work matured, misty, barely discernible gradations supplanted the stripe paintings of his earlier output. Pieces such as Midday Moon #4 (1978), with its Gottlieb-like burst of tangerine in blue sky above green ground, and Study #16 (1978), which looks—almost tastes—like a sticky, Indian Summer night lit by fireflies, achieve their miraculous sfumato via a disciplined, time-intensive application of almost invisible washes of oil paint and turpentine. Sometimes he layered as many as 40 discrete pigments, each of which had to dry before he added the next layer. In many respects, his methods and intents were aligned with those of Mark Rothko; one sees this clearly in Transition (1979), in which a phosphene-like swath of orange merges with aqua within a vaguely rectangular framing device of lavender and ecru. It’s a trippy tribute to the master, which in another universe might have been subtitled Rothko Looks at a Candle Whilst on Psilocybin.
Like James Turrell and Robert Irwin, a continent away from Washington, D.C., Berkowitz was fascinated by liminal shifts of perception, and his paintings, while uncommonly assertive, do not hit one over the head by sheer force of lumens; they beckon one into a hushed, heightened awareness, an altar within an antechamber within a chapel, in which quietude and ensconcement afford one the leisure to contemplate minute shifts in chroma’s gradation from one pole of ROYGBIV to the other. In many pieces, these gradations are so infinitesimal they risk fooling the viewer into assuming they were achieved with an airbrush—but no, they were made the old-fashioned way, with mere quotidian paintbrushes and a lot of patience. The artist likened the aggregate of these myriad layers of thinned-out liquid pigment to “the surface of my skin—because the thing that gives life to my skin is the river of blood under it.” (Haifley)
He was not always this eloquent (but then, who is?). And this hints, the more one learns about Berkowitz, at the frictions within his psyche between his intuitive and discursive impulses. When artists who are gifted with fluent visual vocabularies are prompted to explicate their methods, unfortunate things sometimes ensue. In the catalogue for a 1969 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Berkowitz described his methodology in groan-inducing prose. “The vertical spines,” he began, “position the maximum cold-hot intensities within areas of varying light and dark saturation. The relaxed verticals affirm by contrast the assertive verticals, perhaps even adding to the optical effect, synesthetically. Since gesture and optics are here reciprocal, the painting is more apprehensible as a single image held in the senses. It is by such body-response qualities that nature evokes the spiritual in us, evokes an inner realization of the continuum between the material constituents of both nature and ourselves.” (“From the Writings of Leon Berkowitz”). Well, all right, then. Artists are large; they contain multitudes; and personalities are wide enough to accommodate poetry and pedantry.
It should also be noted that, lBottom of Formike many artists, Berkowitz was proud and prickly enough to wander into the schisms, molehill-mountains and teapot-tempests of his time. He took pains to distance himself from the Washington Color School, even though, as a founder of the influential Washington, D.C., collective known as the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, he was one of that movement’s guiding lights. Rather than plotting common ground with other Workshop artists such as Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring and Thomas Downing, he preferred to ally his work with more eclectic influences such as Kabbalah, Rorschach tests and traditional Chinese painting. “I don’t have any of the characteristics of the Washington Color School,” he sniffed in a 1979 interview with Julie Haifley. “I’m twice removed from it. My ideas are so divergent, totally, from what their ideas are. The whole notion that I orchestrate the light within a painting so that it changes with the light of day—the idea of the continuousness of space and light and form—it doesn’t exist in any of the so-called Color School people.” (Haifley)
With a painter of Berkowitz’s complexity, it’s important to take a long view, and happily, that is what gallerist and curator Virginia Miller has done in “Cascades of Light.” Miller, redoubtable doyenne of the Miami art scene, has a long history with Berkowitz’s work, having presented it in a solo exhibition in 1978, as well as in group shows in 1981 and 2002. Her gift for mounting rigorous and historically significant exhibitions (her recent Cuban abstraction showcase, “The Silent Shout,” was revelatory) is well-suited to Berkowitz’s long and faceted trajectory. She has installed the current show’s 22 paintings to dramatic effect in her Coral Gables space, whose expansive floors and sharp, pointy corners heighten the artworks’ uncanny marriage of containment and histrionics. It is an odd and resplendent paradox, and one that Berkowitz seems ultimately to have understood: an idiosyncratic synthesis of froth and depth; one part Willy Wonka, one part Herman Hesse; a meeting place between “Oh!” and “Om…” In lyrical mode in the late 1970s, he talked with an arts writer about the almost magical ties uniting the physical and metaphysical, a union he strove to capture on canvas. To illustrate the point, he invoked that most romantic of pies in the sky, the moon. Material and immaterial merge, he offered, “when you hold your hands out in the moonlight. If you lift some water from a lake and hold it up in the moonlight, the moon is resting in the palms of your hands.” (Haifley)
(November 7, 2014 – April 28, 2015)
Richard Speer is a contributing critic for ARTnews, Art Ltd., and Visual Art Source. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, Salon, Newsweek and Opera News. His essay, “Floating Free: Peter Halley and Alessandro Mendini’s Buoyant Phantasmagoria,” was published in 2013 by Mary Boone Gallery.
– Julie Haifley, Oral History Interview with Leon Berkowitz, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, July 17, 1979.
– Leon Berkowitz, “From the Writings of Leon Berkowitz,” in the catalogue The Art of Leon Berkowitz, James F. Pilgrim, ed., Corcocan Gallery, 1969.