Leon Berkowitz, I Thou, oil on canvas, 1985

Leon Berkowitz: The Cathedral Series
To May 26 at Hemphill Fine Arts

The closest thing that the Washington Color School had to a physical campus was the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, a school and community center located at 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW that was founded by Leon Berkowitz in 1945. Never mind that the workshop folded by the end of the ’50s, well before the watershed 1965 exhibit that formally put the Color School on the map. Or that Berkowitz, an abstract painter, rejected all claims that he was a member of that club. It was his close association with artists, both as a teacher and an administrator, that earned him a reputation he considered undue. The Washington Arts Museum isn’t doing him any favors in that regard: “Looking Into Color,” an exhibit from the artist’s mature period, puts him at the center of the festival—and squarely within the color-field tradition. In Winged (1968n72), Berkowitz paints roughly hewn vertical stripes on a hexagonal field; the piece not only links his work to Davis’, it resembles the reductive experiments in frame and canvas that would follow the color-field period. I Thou (1985) falls somewhere between the expansive atmospheres of Mark Rothko and the reductive spray-painted fields of Olitski. Enter looks like something by Pollock before he was Pollock: a hard-edged, abstract, mythic painting. But Berkowitz’s primary concerns trend far earlier: He was a spiritual painter, not much taken with the formal developments of his colleagues and students, and he described his works as paintings of light. What primarily distinguishes him from the Color School is his brush: Berkowitz applied paint with the painterly ambition that color-field artists rejected with their pours and stains. Possibly adding insult to injury, Berkowitz’s paintings are paired with some non sequiturs—including three early portraits of his Washington Color School buddies.