Art explained: Mark Leithauser, chief of design, National Gallery of Art

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:09 PM

For almost four decades, Mark Leithauser has had one of the most visible jobs in Washington but one that is often overlooked. And for good reason. Leithauser is the chief of design and senior curator at the National Gallery of Art, where, among other duties, he chooses the colors for the walls, selecting the perfect backgrounds for some of the world's most famous art.

Under his direction, more than 400 exhibitions have been installed with different looks, from dark wall trims to the palest gray walls to radiant colors and bronzed arches. His methods and selections, realized with the aid of the gallery's designers, painters and carpenters, make the most familiar art pop with freshness.

On his drawing tables for many months have been two exhibitions, "Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals" and "Gauguin: Maker of Myth." The challenges were polar opposites: Canaletto, with his precise architectural details and rolling skies, and Gauguin, with that artist's lush scenery, striking self-portraits and soft bodies.

In a dark suit, and wearing the rubber-soled shoes that are required for the miles of travel among the museum's 232 rooms, Leithauser discussed the process. Once the galleries for a show are selected, snapshots of the art and the arrangements for the space are mapped out on a huge white table. Formulas for colors are blended; cardboard swatches are created. His team discusses the historic accuracy of a color, whether it will wash out, and how it will change on the walls and under the lights.

"I think what you want to do as an exhibit designer is to make the work feel at home. Some of the modern art, if you put them on a white wall they look old. Some Picassos are almost 100 years old, and if they only have white walls, they look like they are in a laboratory.

"Gauguin - well, as long as you don't overwhelm the colors in the painting. There are the body colors, which are the warm colors of the indigenous tribes. You also have a lot of blue in Gauguin. Say with Cezanne, you can choose the colors of Provence and dig into the quarries of the region. We hit the color with the clay, a strong ocher color. The mobiles of Calder demanded a soft gray because the shadows on the walls are critical.

"As we select, we have to pay a tremendous amount of attention to the lights. Some galleries have skylights with natural light and that shifts during the day. Some daylight is cool and picks up the color. With the light spill you can change the value of a color by five degrees.

"With Gauguin's colors, you have to remember, he didn't hold back anything. More than any other painter of his time, he did skin tones, all the beiges, all the reds. That allows us to do darker and richer greens and blues. This man painted by pigment. We wanted to be intense, and we used a black trim in the rooms.

"These are earth colors - one room is a lighter green, a celery, and the other darker, more saturated celery. Another gallery is close to the colors of a coconut shell or bamboo. More tropical breezes, though we don't have many names, just all these numbers.

"For the room where we hung the last painting he did, it's an indigo blue. The painting is very poignant, dreamy and mythological. So we went as dark a color as you can get.

"Gauguin is not going to be washed out. Let the painting do the work, and let the colors of the wall fall off.''

© 2011 The Washington Post Company