Val E. Lewton, a Washington artist and designer of artistic exhibitions for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art (now the American Art Museum) and other galleries, died April 24 at his home in Washington. He was 77.
The cause was metastatic melanoma, said his wife, Claudia Minicozzi.
Mr. Lewton was the son of a Hollywood movie producer, also named Val Lewton, who was revered by film enthusiasts for his high artistry under a strained budget. In such 1940s films as “Cat People,” “I Walked With a Zombie” and “The Body Snatcher,” the last starring Boris Karloff, the stylish and inventive use of shadow and sound provided most of the suspense.
The younger Lewton focused his artistic career in Washington. For 32 years, he designed exhibitions for the Smithsonian, including a 1976 exhibition of the works of the painter and graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg; a 1989 exhibition of the masterworks of decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany; and painter Albert Pinkham Ryder in 1990.
“Val often incorporated a special element in his designs to evoke the era being displayed — sometimes as simple as a drapery to evoke a Gilded Age parlor. For the Tiffany exhibition, he created a period room in the Renwick’s Palm Court, complete with a pond and several gold fish,” Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, wrote in an obituary notice for Mr. Lewton.
His Smithsonian designs also were incorporated into exhibitions on the art of landscape painter Thomas Cole, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and painter, illustrator and sculptor Frederic Remington.
Mr. Lewton retired from the Smithsonian in 1995. For the next two decades, he was a freelance designer of artistic exhibitions, including many at the Phillips Collection in Washington.
He also concentrated on creating his own art. Mr. Lewton’s paintings included urban and suburban landscapes broadly reflecting population movements in and out of American cities over the past six decades. Some of his ideas came from newspaper stories, his wife said. He painted burned-down gas stations and sites of urban demolition, but generally not people.
His art had been the subject of 15 solo exhibitions and was included in the collections of several Washington-area galleries. He also made photographs reflecting historical changes in the Washington neighborhood around Gallery Place.
Val Edwin Lewton was born May 23, 1937, in Santa Monica, Calif. He recalled his father, who died in 1951, teaching him carpentry and other skills with tools.
He graduated in 1959 from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., and received a master’s degree in fine arts from Claremont University in 1962.
The next year, he came to Washington and began his Smithsonian career. He also helped establish the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop and was a founding member of the Studio Gallery.
Outside of art, his enthusiasms included running. Mr. Lewton finished first in the first running of the Capitol Hill Classic 10K race more than three decades ago. He was president of the Beltway Striders and had participated in the Boston and New York marathons.
His first marriage, to Jean Kling, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 25 years, Claudia Minicozzi of Washington; two sons from his first marriage, Christopher Lewton of Washington and Victor Lewton of Kensington, Md.; three stepchildren, Bill Minicozzi of Belmont, Mass., Alex Minicozzi of Takoma Park, Md., and Regis Minicozzi of Phoenix; and nine grandchildren.
Of Mr. Lewton’s artistry, one the most visible examples is his mural on the side of a large concrete edifice just off H Street NW, near Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue. The tall, thin structure is actually an air shaft built in 1975 to vent exhaust fumes from the underground portion of Interstate 395.
In 1988, the District had a contest that asked for proposals on how to decorate the structure. “To my surprise, I actually won,” Mr. Lewton said later.
He designed a 60-by-100 foot trompe l’oeil that he called “The Airshaft Mural,” which makes the concrete appear to be pierced by windows through which the Capitol building can be seen.
“I sort of wanted to emphasize the concrete,” Mr. Lewton told The Washington Post. “I thought if it looked like it had been penetrated, it would make it look even more solid than it was.”