It seems most of the artists identified as belonging to the Washington Color School rejected the association. At the time, the artists bristled at being categorized. In fact, it is not clear the nomenclature was commonly used until later. In one notable case, an artist denied his own connection, and his work was treated as suspect within the so-called Color School. Leon Berkowitz. Possibly because of squabbles among peers, his use of oil rather than acrylic paint, or interpretation of his work as being outside of the unarticulated tenets of Color School painting. During his career, Berkowitz was loved and actively collected. Gallery and museum visitors would gather, seated in front of a Berkowitz painting, in hypnotic contemplation. Much to the annoyance of other so-called members of the group. There is nothing confrontational in his work, no abrupt juxtapositions, only smooth, glowing rich colors. The concentrations of color occur balanced at the center of each canvas. The paintings are pleasing, seductive, and easily consumed. All achieved through a mystifying technique, hinting at being hand-painted, yet impossible to explain. Maybe opponents of his work believed art should not be so quickly beautiful. For whatever reason, during his lifetime he did not fit comfortably into the Color School camp. Today Berkowitz is easily included in the Washington Color School. The petty aesthetic hazing has disappeared and time has tightened the definition of the Washington Color School. Today, the connection to the work of his peers is clear, as are the meaningful distinctions in Berkowitz’ painting.
Washington Color School painters started with ideas about color. Less obvious and equally as important are the various reductive strategies the artists applied. Each jettisoned most of the defining characteristics of painting that had preceded. No prior subject was referenced, no personal content shared, and nothing to interpret, only the painting's physical presence. Each artist developed a unique way for the creation of works that reduced painting to the purest retinal experience. Where the other Color School artists wished to communicate only what was literally seen in the here and now, Berkowitz reached for a transcendent experience. Was his reaching beyond disqualifying? Or did Berkowitz, through the reductive strategies of Color School painting, reveal that more could exist in the pure experience of color?
Leon Berkowitz (American, 1911 – 1987) studied at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and at the Art Students League in New York, and in his travels studied in France, Italy and Mexico. Spending most of his life in Washington, he taught art in D.C. high schools and at the Corcoran School of Art and was a founder of the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. His work is held in the collections of the High Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden, the Museum of Modern Art, NY, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among other public and private collections.