Berkowitz’s early works combined loose figurative elements with inspirations from some of the most important artists of the time, including Morris Louis, Willem de Kooning, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, as he experimented and honed his own approach and style. Following the closing of the Center in 1956, Berkowitz moved abroad, where he would spend the next decade living and traveling. It was during this time that Berkowitz cemented his commitment to evoking the emotional resonance of color and light within the surface plane. By the 1970s, his works had become entirely abstract, characterized by both vibrant bursts of color and subtle gradations of light and hue. “Merlin #2”, painted in 1984 is a prime example of his all-over color canvases that seem to radiate light towards the viewer. Here, the turquoise border draws the viewers attention inward to the central radiating form of orange and red. Berkowitz’s technique differed from contemporaries in that he didn’t employ Frankenthaler’s “staining” method on unprimed canvas and he made use of oil instead of acrylic. He applied as many as 40 layers of paint, blotting with rice paper or using a a hair dryer between layers to dry and eliminate brushstrokes, rendering sumptuous, super-saturated canvases. Berkowitz’s fascination with perceptions of light connected him to the artists of California’s Light and Space Movement, and indeed, his canvases exude a captivating luminescence that seems to emanate from deep within. When a selection of his paintings was displayed at the Phillips Collection in 1976, he said of his work, “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.” (1)
Throughout his career, Berkowitz participated in a wide range of solo and group exhibitions, including those at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Chicago Arts Club, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Phillips Collection, and Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, among others. His work is held in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, among numerous others. In addition to his own practice, Berkowitz was a well-recognized teacher. He served as the chairman of the painting department at The Corcoran Gallery’s School of Art, where he taught for nearly twenty years until his death in 1987.
1. Quote drawn from: American Art at The Phillips Collection, “Biography: Leon Berkowitz (1919-1987)”. phillipscollection.org