- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

Mark Leithauser works as design chief for the National Gallery of Art, visualizing how gallery exhibitions will look and transforming them into reality. He also is a prolific artist. In 1974, Mr. Leithauser began creating intricate, otherworldly landscape etchings in his spare time. He showed them with great success at the now-defunct Franz Bader Gallery in Washington. Some of his admirers lament that he turned from the etchings to just-as-otherworldly still lifes in oil. Some are inspired by 17th-century Dutch paintings, others by the Orient. He has displayed them at major New York galleries, such as Coe Kerr and Hollis Taggart.
"I keep the National Gallery job to 50 hours a week, except when I'm traveling, and paint nights and weekends. It's not easy, and you can't do everything," he says. "My staff and my deputy, Gordon Anson, help tremendously."
Part of his job involves traveling to places such as Beijing and Vienna to assist curators and plan how objects will look best at the National Gallery.
As an artist, he recently contributed graphite drawings of whimsical, fantastic insects, animals and surrealist landscapes to "Darlington's Fall," a novel in verse by his brother Brad Leithauser (New York, Knopf, 2002). In April, Mr. Leithauser, 51, exhibited paintings from the drawings at New York's Hollis Taggart Galleries.
The two gave a "Brothers in Collaboration" presentation Thursday night at Chapters Literary Bookstore on K Street Northwest.
Mark and Brad worked on the book last spring while on Bogliasco Foundation fellowships near Genoa, Italy. "There were so many visuals in his writing because he lovingly describes nature and people. The whole thing came together in a month," the artist says.
Mark Leithauser was able to get a rare leave from his National Gallery job and the preparation of the exhibitions "Henry Moore" and "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women."
The brothers grew up in Detroit as the middle children in a family of four sons, a lawyer father and a mother who taught English at the University of Michigan. "We had a cabin in the northern Michigan woods and learned to love nature there. We were only three years apart and close as kids. When I retire, I'd like to spend six months of the year in the cabin that the family still has," Mark Leithauser says.
The protagonist of "Darlington's Fall" is 7-year-old Russel Darlington, who loves nature and has just lost his mother. Each illustration by Mr. Leithauser marks the beginning of a chapter, and "Half an Orphan" indicates the first one. "This little boy was obsessed with frogs, and others made fun of him. I drew and painted a frog leaping through the "O" of "One," trying to show the whole book springing to life," Mr. Leithauser says.
The artist demonstrates his whimsical bent and loving attention to detail in the heading of Chapter 6, "The Encounter." A dinosaur holds up curved and broken bones that spell out "six." His delicately boned wing supports a mural by a painter whom the book's character has just met. Mr. Leithauser indicates the hero by a set of paint brushes laid out in front of the dinosaur.
Mr. Leithauser has come a long way from the artist who arrived at the National Gallery in 1974 to heading its design department and to showing in a premier New York gallery. "I was a long-hair from Detroit where I was running a small museum, teaching part time and working on a M.A. [masters of fine arts] in studio art at Wayne State University," Mr. Leithauser recalls.
He came for a two-month internship in museum-exhibit design that his mother had heard about, and he never left. He first worked under the legendary Gaillard ("Gil") Ravenel, who became his mentor and good friend. When Mr. Ravenel died in 1995, Mr. Leithauser became chief designer.
The early 1970s were the years when this kind of design exploded. Mr. Ravenel and Mr. Leithauser created the rooms of Tutankhamun's Egyptian tomb to simulate the excitement of the 1922 original discovery for the "Treasures of Tutankhamun" exhibit in 1976.
Major international traveling shows quickly followed, such as "The Splendor of Dresden: Five Centuries of Art Collecting," which inaugurated the National Gallery's East Building. Mr. Leithauser remembers "The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Patronage and Art" in 1985 with special pleasure and "Johannes Vermeer" of 1995. He and his staff of 55 have won numerous awards.
"I go into a gallery and set it up like a painting. I begin planning a show with very loose sketches on scrap paper, then develop them into more rendered drawings. Next, I visualize and draw it even better and turn it over to the architects and master carpenters," Mr. Leithauser says.
Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., worked with the designer on "The Splendor of Dresden" exhibit. "The exhibit was coming to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where I was a curator, and I felt it was one of the most extraordinary shows ever organized. He created whole rooms that were designed for Augustus the Strong of Saxony.
"It was the forerunner of 'The Treasure Houses of Britain,' where Mark re-created the feeling of a series of interiors from English country houses. Mark has the incredible ability to both conceive and translate real domestic environments to the context of a museum. He can also sense what the great objects are and to persuade the curator to give them primacy of place in a museum display," Mr. Conforti says.
Mr. Leithauser displays the early etchings he made from 1974 to 1989 in his Washington home, which is filled with antiques and Oriental rugs. Many, like the four etching proofs he made of "The Northern Shore," are landscapes. He began by visiting outdoor sites and sketching the most interesting parts, which he combined into surrealistically lighted, mystical scenes. He used great detail, often spending up to 13 months on a single one. He first drew with a steel needle into a thin layers of wax over a copper plate. He then would immerse the plate into various acids with stopping-out, or acid-resistant, varnishes.
"I and others wish he were still making those superlative and beautifully detailed prints," says Eric Denker, curator of prints and drawings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
But Mr. Leithauser wanted to do something that would allow more productivity with less studio time. He also wanted a medium that would still permit him to work with precision, but add color. He was not experienced with oil pigment, so he tested it by painting details of flora and fauna around his house. "Fortunately, my wife like them," he says.
His children, Hamilton and Anna, were young at the time so he used acrylic as a fast-drying sketching medium. The oils and glazing came later. The intriguing subjects he paints now on panel flowers bulbs, fans, firecrackers, tools, mailing envelopes and stamps, and trees come from many sources, but usually relate to his exposure to them at the gallery. Some were inspired by his trips to China and Japan for gallery shows.
The wisteria that descends from a Daliesque tree in his recent painting "Equal Distance" echoes the wisteria growing on the Mall side of the National Gallery. The mountain is from a Japanese ukiyo-e print. "As in this work, I want some of my paintings to combine East and West," the artist says. "Almost nothing in my paintings exists in reality and I never set up a still life."
Autobiographic references are another avenue for the artist. He became interested in painting envelopes, especially their forms and textures, in paintings such as "An Early Exchange" (1991). In this work, the artist swings envelopes up from a holder to bend toward a curve of cascading flowers. Mr. Leithauser says he enjoys the rich, psychological implications of bunches of letters. "They could contain memories, love letters, even bills," he says. The artist also finds them a rich field for different kinds of calligraphy, smooth and crumpled textures, bright yellows, pinks, turquoises and purples, and a perfect foil for trompe l'oeil illusionistic painting.
His dealer, Hollis Taggart, likes the interplay of gallery design and individual creativity in the artist's work. "Because he's chief of design at the National Gallery, he's responsible for installations of exhibits from all parts of the world, from Flemish old masters to contemporary realism to everything in between. I admire his ability to synthesize all these various influences into his own unique style and subject matter," Mr. Taggart says.
Mr. Leithauser and his wife, Bryan, who is director of the social services program at St. Albans School, share many interests in art. They met at the National Gallery. His interests lean toward 17th- and 18th-century carpenters drills made in America and Europe. She's into Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
His life is one continuous flow of creating at the gallery, working at his drawing and printing table at his house and adorning his walls with beauty at home.

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