Leon Berkowitz and Ida Fox Berkowitz papers, circa 1900-1986

A Finding Aid to the Leon Berkowitz and Ida Fox Berkowitz Papers, circa 1900-1986, in the Archives of American Art, by Rebecca Williams

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Table of Contents:

Biographical Information

Leon Berkowitz (1911-1987), a painter associated with the Washington Color School, was born in Philadelphia (the 1919 birth date given by Berkowitz in Who's Who in American Art is incorrect). He met and married his first wife, Ida Fox, between 1935 and 1937. Berkowitz received a B.F.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1942 and an M.A. from George Washington University in 1948.

From 1943 to 1945, he served as a private in the U.S. Army, participating in a psychiatric program involving art therapy at Camp Lee, Virginia. Berkowitz taught art at Eastern and Western high schools in Washington, D.C. from 1945 to 1956 and taught at Western again in the late 1960s. In 1969 Berkowitz became chairman of the Corcoran School of Art's painting department and taught there until his death.

In 1945, the Berkowitzes founded the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts with Helmuth Kern. The Center, an important part of the city's cultural life during the 1940s and 1950s, offered courses in art, music, theatre and dance. Many of the artists who later became prominent in the Washington Color School taught at the center, including Morris Louis, Ken Noland, Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen and Jack Perlmutter. The center also sponsored a retrospective for Willem de Kooning in 1953. The Berkowitzes and Kern were also active in establishing the shortlived (1949-1953) cooperative radio station WCFM.

The center collapsed in 1956, shortly after the Berkowitzes' departure on a sabbatical painting trip to Spain. They spent much of the next decade abroad, including a two-and-a half year stay in Wales and a visit of several months to Jerusalem. During this period, Berkowitz expanded his interest in light, creating paintings by priming canvases with a white ground, then using multiple layers of thin oil paint washes.

Berkowitz had his first one-man museum show at the Corcoran in 1966. Ida Fox died during the 1970s and Berkowitz then married his second wife, Maureen. He continued to paint and exhibit until his death from cancer in 1987.

Poet Ida Fox (1913-197?) was born in Philadelphia. She married Leon Berkowitz between 1934 and 1937 and moved with him to Washington, D.C. where she attended American University from 1942 to 1945. During World War II she worked as a statistician for the U.S. government. In 1945 she cofounded the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts. Fox became its director in 1947, resigning the position in 1955 to accompany her husband to Spain. She published poetry in several literary and artistic periodicals, including a series, "Painting Thru a Poet's Eye," inspired by works of art. In 1970 she published a collection of poetry, In the Wind: An American Poet in Wales (St. David's, Wales: Antiphon Press, 1970), illustrated by Arthur Okamura.

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Overview of the Collection

Scope and Contents

The collection measures 3.0 linear feet and dates from circa 1900 to 1986. In addition to documenting the artistic development of Leon Berkkowitz and, to a lesser extent, Ida Fox, the collection provides insight into the cultural and artistic climate in Washington D.C. during the 1940s and 1950s.

The collection includes correspondence, primarily between Leon and Ida Fox Berkowitz, notes, sketches, personal photographs, printed material, and a cassette tape. There are notes on Leon Berkowitz's philosophy of painting, reports from a 1940s U.S. Army art therapy project in which he participated, and scattered correspondence, financial records, and promotional materials from the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts and WCFM radio. Also found here are lecture notes and administrative materials relating to Leon's Berkowitz's teaching career, papers he wrote for several education courses, his master's thesis, sporadic business records concerning shipments and sales of paintings and gallery exhibitions, and drafts of catalogs.

Arrangement and Series Description

The collection is arranged into nine series:

Subjects and Names

This collection is indexed in the online catalog of the Archives of American Art under the following index terms:

  • Burton, Scott
  • De Kooning, Elaine
  • Fox, Ida
  • Kern, Helmuth F.
  • Okamura, Arthur
  • Ulbricht, John, 1926-
  • Washington Workshop Center for the Arts
  • Art--Philosophy
  • Art--Study and teaching
  • Color-field painting
  • Painters--Washington (D.C.)
  • Photographs
  • Works of art


Leon Berkowitz donated the papers of his first wife, Ida Fox, in 1987. After his death in 1987, his second wife, Maureen Berkowitz, donated his papers to the Archives of American Art. In addition to these two accessions, one folder of material on Leon Berkowitz was donated in 1979. This material was microfilmed on reel 2786.

Separated and Related Materials

Also available in the Archives of American Art are two audio cassettes of a transcribed oral history interview with Leon and Ida Fox Berkowitz, June 5, 1979.

How the Collection was Processed

The collection was processed by Rebecca Williams in 1989. The finding aid was revised by Stephanie Ashley during conversion to EAD in 2002.

How to Use the Collection

Restrictions on Use

The collection is open for research. Microfilmed portion must be consulted on microfilm. Use of unmicrofilmed material requires an appointment and is limited to the Washington, D.C. research facility.

Ownership & Literary Rights

The Leon Berkowitz and Ida papers are owned by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Literary rights as possessed by the donor have been dedicated to public use for research, study, and scholarship. The collection is subject to all copyright laws.

Available Formats

One folder of the collection is available microfilm reel 2786. The microfilm is available for interlibrary loan.

How to Cite this Collection

Leon Berkowitz and Ida Fox Berkowitz papers, circa 1900-1986. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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Detailed Description and Container Inventory

Series 1: Biographical Material, 1934-circa 1974, undated
3 Folders; Box 1

Biographical material found in this series includes educational and war service records, r�sum�s, biographical sketches, and certificates of awards.

1 Address Book, undated
1 Biographical Material, 1934-circa 1974, undated
(2 folders)

Series 2: Correspondence, 1931-1985, undated
27 Folders; Boxes 1-2

The bulk of the correspondence found here consists of letters between Leon and Ida Berkowitz, written during trips in the 1950s or during Leon's World War II service from 1943 to 1945. Leon's 1940s letters contain occasional pen and ink sketches of life at Camp Lee, Virginia, fellow servicemen, and a few self-portraits. The majority of the remaining letters were written during the 1950s. Correspondents include Helmuth F. Kern (often addressed as "Du"), cofounder of the WWCA, painters John Ulbricht, Elaine de Kooning (five letters to Ida Fox during 1957 and 1958), Arthur Okamura, sculptor Scott Burton (1957-1961), describing his studies in painting with Hans Hofmann at Provincetown, and Jim V. Baker and Laura de Freitas (who often signed letters as "Me").

The correspondence is arranged chronologically.

1 Correspondence, undated
1 Correspondence, Incoming, undated
1 Correspondence, Outgoing, undated
1 Correspondence, 1931-1954
(14 folders)
2 Correspondence, 1955-1985
(9 folders)
2 Postcards, 1950-1974, undated

Series 3: Teaching, 1939-1950s, 1985-1986, undated
4 Folders; box 2

2 Clippings, circa 1950s
2 Correspondence, 1939-1950s, 1985-1986, undated
2 Lecture Notes, undated
2 Student Art Tours, undated

Series 4: Exhibitions, 1944-1985, undated
10 Folders; Box 2, MMs

The first folder in this series is not physically filed with the other material as it was received as a separate donation in 1979 and subsequently microfilmed. That folder contains vitae, and printed material relating to exhibtions. Other folders are arranged alphabetically.

MMs Printed Material (microfilmed on reel 2786), 1953-1978, undated
2 Catalogs and Announcements, 1950-1976, undated
(2 folders)
2 Clippings, 1956-1973, undated
2 Drafts of Corcoran Exhibition Catalog, 1968-1969
2 Gallery Receipts, 1950-1985
(2 folders)
2 Inventory of Paintings, circa 1976-1977
2 Other Artists, Catalogs and Announcements, 1944-1985, undated
(2 folders)

Series 5: Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, 1940s-1950s
14 Folders; Box 2

Correspondence in this series includes general business records for the center, such as meeting minutes and financial statements.

Folders are arranged alphabetically.

1 Announcements, Brochures and Catalogs, 1940s-1950s
(2 folders)
1 Clippings, 1940s-1950s
1 Correspondence, 1943-1956, undated
(10 folders)
1 Draft of Radio Script, circa 1940-1950

Series 6: Other Projects, 1944-1985
4 Folders; Box 3

Folders are arranged alphabetically.

3 Art Therapy Project, U.S. Army, 1944-1945
3 Jury Judging, 1983-1985
3 WCFM Radio Station, 1949-1953
3 Washington Arts Council, 1947-1954

Series 7: Notes and Writings, 1940s-1971, undated
8 Folders; Box 3

Folders are arranged alphabetically.

3 Essay, "Art in the Extra-Curriculum,," undated
3 Essay, "The Job of the Art Supervisor,," undated
3 Master's Thesis, "Factors Significant in the Success of a Creative Arts Center,," 1948
3 Notes, undated
3 Notes, Art and Society (course), 1942
3 Notes, Draft of "Wind Among the Leaves,," undated
3 Notes, On Paintings, 1940s, 1968-1971
3 Poems, Ida Fox Berkowitz, undated

Series 8: Artwork, circa 1950s, undated
5 Folders; Box 3

Artwork by Leon Berkowitz includes eleven undated sketchbooks, many of Paris; eleven loose, undated sketches and six illustrated letters (found in the correspondence for 1943-1945). In addition, the collection contains one woodcut print by Arthur Okamura titled "Angel."

Folders are arranged alphabetically.

3 Loose Sketches, undated
3 Reproductions of Artwork, undated
3 Sketchbooks, undated
(11 sketchbooks in 2 folders)
3 Woodblock Print, Arthur Okamura, circa 1950s

Series 9: Photographs, circa 1900-1970s
5 Folders; Box 3

The photographs consist primarily of black and white travel photographs of Leon and Ida, taken during trips to Mexico, Spain, and Wales. The collection also includes scattered family photographs from the early part of the twentieth century, childhood portraits of Leon, some pictures of Leon in uniform during the 1940s, and scattered photographs of paintings.

Folders are arranged alphabetically. Within folders photographs are arranged chronologically, with negatives following positives.

3 Photographs and Negatives, circa 1900-1970s
(3 folders)
3 Photographs of Paintings, circa 1950s-1970s
3 Photographs of Washington Workshop Center for the Arts, circa 1950s

Series 10: Audio Cassette, [1974?]
1 Folder; Box 3

3 Audio Cassette of Taped Conversations, 1974, undated