The Man with the Paint Plan: Val Lewton, Exhibition Designer

If you’ve wandered through our galleries recently and seen the gorgeous Georges Braque and the Cubist Still Life, 1928-1945 exhibition, you likely marveled at the masterpieces on display, expertly hung for your viewing pleasure. For each special exhibition, works come from all over the globe and are united in beautiful harmony on our walls and in our galleries. In my completely biased opinion, these works, no matter where their permanent home may be, always look their best in the Phillips gallery spaces.  Why here, you ask? Because in addition to our intimate galleries and our extraordinarily talented staff of curators, preparators, and registrars who hang each show, the Phillips has a secret weapon: exhibition designer Val Lewton.

Exhibition Designer Val Lewton stands by one of his favorite paintings in the Braque exhibition.

Exhibition Designer Val Lewton stands by one of his favorite paintings in the Braque exhibition. Photos: Liza Key Strelka

Val began working with the Phillips on a freelance basis in 1996, just one year after retiring as Chief of the Design Office at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His first exhibition design at the Phillips was for the 1996 exhibition, Americans in Paris: Man Ray, Gerald Murphy, Stuart Davis, Alexander Calder (1921-1931). Since then, Val has been a constant and integral part of our exhibitions, and the unsung hero of many an installation, carefully constructing a design layout and paint scheme for most of our special exhibitions, and transforming our spaces for each new exhibition to highlight the inherent qualities of artists and their work on display. He’s also the reason why I can differentiate between various shades of white and know so many different names and shades of Benjamin Moore and Duron paint colors.

Following his recent work on the Braque show, Val kindly allowed me to ask him a few questions about his process and his opinions on color design in exhibitions:

What are the first steps you take to determine the color scheme of an exhibition?

Wall colors are usually chosen late in the exhibition design process. By that time, I have carefully studied reproductions of all the work to be exhibited. When we get down to a serious discussion of colors I usually have a good idea of what atmosphere the curator wants. For instance, with the Braque show, although white walls were becoming the norm for nineteenth century moderns, it seemed that the paintings’ sophisticated design, domestic scale, and subtle coloration called for mid-value gray walls.  Two grays, one darker than the other, were chosen to compliment as best as possible the variety of the exhibited work. In the darker galleries, base and crown molding was painted the lighter grey and visa versa in the lighter galleries.

Val Lewton in the Braque galleries.

Val Lewton in the Braque galleries.

How does your choice of wall color correspond to how you design the layout of an exhibition?

Although wall color can be crucial to a viewer’s experience, my first consideration is with gallery space and traffic flow. Certainly the difference between very light and very dark colors can radically alter perceptions of space, but interior architectural considerations come before choice of colors.  So as I stated, considerations of color come after the curator and I determine gallery sequence and a coherent path through the show.

Do certain artists/art movements require different color palettes (such as abstract expressionism vs. impressionism, etc.)? Do you notice any new trends in the museum world relating to exhibition design and wall color?

Of course–most abstract expressionist paintings were conceived for large white corporate spaces. And that kind of work probably looks best against a white wall. However, be aware that white is not just one color. The particular white, whether warm or cool, can be critical to the proper ambiance of the galleries. Recently, the Phillips has been using a generic China White for many of its modernist galleries. That white leans toward a high value, neutral gray that works well with art made across generations of twentieth-century artists. To properly display works by earlier nineteenth-century artists such as Daumier or Monticelli, the walls need colors that are far richer. Even with these richer, darker colors it is important to avoid getting the colors too lurid. The colors in the paintings should be the star attraction.

The very first installation I ever worked on in the early 1960s, The Muse and the Ego under Bates Lowery at Pomona College, called for a clear demarcation in color between late nineteenth-century French salon paintings and those paintings conceived in nature, outside the studio by impressionists. The effect of moving from the salon to the  Salon des Refusés was as if a heavy, dark red velvet curtain had been pulled aside to let in the light of day. As an art student, that exhibition had a profound influence on my future work in exhibition design.

As for new trends in exhibit design, most involve accommodating new methods of interpretation provided by digital media. While audio and video presentations can enhance the museum visitor’s experience, it can, if not handled properly, interfere with the primary experience of looking at art.

 What are some of  your favorite past exhibition wall color designs?

I think the noted curator, Walter Hopps, devised the most unusual color scheme I ever worked on. The show was Made in Chicago at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in the late 1970s. It featured work by H.C. Westerman and Chicago artists of the roughly affiliated “Hairy Who”. This was a show that started out with wall color as its primary design element. Hopps wanted Westerman’s work displayed up front in a large white gallery. Surrounding that central gallery Hopps wanted individual cell-like galleries painted in colors of the “Hairy Who” artist’s choosing. Amazingly, all seven or eight artists, including Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, and Gladys Nilsson, submitted garish but appropriate colors from radically differing points on the color wheel. That show, rightly, contradicted all my fusty designer instincts.


You can admire Val’s most recent design work and color choices in the Braque exhibition, on view through September 1.

Sneak Peek: Van Gogh Repetitions, Five Months Out

View of chief curator Eliza Rathbone's wall, with images from this fall's Van Gogh Repetition exhibition and catalogue. Photo: Liza Key Strelka

View of Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone’s office wall, with images from this fall’s Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition and catalogue. Photo: Liza Key Strelka

Exhibitions at the Phillips are years in the making. Our curators often spend at least 2-3 years researching, compiling checklists, locating artwork, collaborating with other museums and venues, visiting and writing to potential lenders, and writing catalogue text. During that time, they immerse themselves in the exhibition’s subject matter. Oftentimes, their offices become transformed by their work: stacks of reference catalogues piled high, drafts of loan letters and checklists abound, and the images of artworks seem to magically appear on their walls. For this fall’s Van Gogh Repetitions exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone printed images of all the “repetitions” we will be featuring in the show and grouped them on one of her office walls, as seen in the image at left. She was able to visualize the similarities and differences between paintings of the same subject matter as she worked on her catalogue entries and began thinking about the exhibition’s layout.

Once the preliminary work is complete, the artworks are secured, and the catalogue text is off to the publisher, the real fun begins. And by “fun”, I mean playing with miniature-sized “maquettes” of the paintings in the show to determine  exhibition design and layout. These small, to-scale images combined with a scaled model of our exhibition spaces allow the curator to visualize gallery layouts and groupings before the works arrive in-house, making for a smoother and more efficient installation process. Not surprisingly, it’s also much safer moving around small cardboard rectangles than priceless paintings.

maquettes on a table with hand

Eliza Rathbone laying out maquettes of works that will be featured in Van Gogh Repetitions. Photo: Liza Key Strelka

Recently Eliza, Head of Conservation Elizabeth Steele, and I sat down to begin shaping the design and visitor flow of the van Gogh exhibition in preparation for a meeting with our exhibition designer. Here’s a sneak peek of some of the works that will grace our walls beginning October 12.  Stay tuned for more “sneak peeks” as our design progresses, and we get closer to opening day. We’re looking forward to sharing the real paintings and works on paper with you this fall!

Maquettes of van Gogh paintings

Maquettes of van Gogh paintings. Photo: Liza Key Strelka

My Own “Spring Break”: New Photography Gifts at the Phillips

View of new photography installation at the Phillips. Photo: Joshua Navarro

View of new photography installation at the Phillips. Photo: Joshua Navarro

I, for one, have cherry blossom fatigue. As a D.C. resident for the past ten years, I welcome spring with open arms but have never understood all the hype behind the blossom-mania that overtakes D.C. in March and April. Forget cherry blossoms! Give me a Manhattan street view, circa 1935, or a carefully composed photograph of an oil field worker spooling cables, or a portrait of Marcel Duchamp standing behind one of his complex installations–all in black and white. Thankfully, the blossom season has waned (as have my allergies!), and the Phillips has the remedy to my too-much-spring fever. A new installation of recent and promised gifts to the collection proves that there’s nothing dull or lifeless about black and white photography. Associate Curator for Research Susan Behrends Frank created a dynamic installation in a gallery on the first floor of our Sant building, displaying photographs that range in date from the 1930s to the 1970s and featuring portraits, landscapes, scenes from American life, and photographic experimentations with light and movement.

©Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Berenice Abbott, Under the “El” Lower East Side, New York, c. 1935. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 in. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012 © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York.

Highlights include photography of life in New York City, such as Berenice Abbott’s Under the “El” Lower East Side, New York (c. 1935) seen above, along with beautiful, gritty photographs of Harlem in the 1960s in Bruce Davidson’s East 100th Street Series. Davidson’s eye for capturing the pulse of a time and place is also apparent in photographs from his Los Angeles Series. Because nothing says “L.A.” like people in their cars, am I right?

women in car

Installation view of Bruce Davidson, Looking through car window at white car with four women, Los Angeles Series, 1964. Gelatin silver print,11 x 14 in. Promised gift of Saul Levi. Photo: Joshua Navarro

Before Instagram made us all amateur photographers, there was Gjon Mili, a self-taught pioneer in the use of new photographic technology. Mili was one of the first to use electronic flash and stroboscopic light to create photographs that capture a sequence of actions in just one exposure. Many of his notable images, such as Multiple image of little boy running (1941) reveal movement often too rapid or complex for the naked eye to discern.

Installation shot of Mili's Multiple Image of little boy running, 1941  Photo: Liza Key Strelka

Installation view of Mili’s Multiple Image of little boy running, 1941. Photo: Liza Key Strelka

The world of blue-collar vocations is elevated to new heights in the photographs of Esther Bubley and Alfred Eisenstadt. In the photo below, Bubley’s lens seems to simply capture a worker absorbed in his duties, but her eye for the abstract qualities of light, shadow, and machinery provides her composition with a modern, almost painterly feel.

Esther Bubley Untitled (Workman), oil field, man with wire/cable spool signaling to his helper on the derrick, 1945 Gelatin silver print, 13 1/8 x 10 ¼ inches, Gift of Cam and Wanda Garner, 2012

Esther Bubley, Untitled (Workman), oil field, man with wire/cable spool signaling to his helper on the derrick, 1945. Gelatin silver print, 13 1/8 x 10 1/4 in. Gift of Cam and Wanda Garner, 2012

And, finally, one of my personal favorites, an Arnold Newman photograph of Marcel Duchamp standing behind one of his pieces from 1942, probably dreaming up his next mind-boggling installation and playing the perfect role of “aloof artist genius:”

Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp, 1942, Gelatin silver print, Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012. © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images 2013

Arnold Newman, Marcel Duchamp, 1942. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Lisa Finn, 2012. © Arnold Newman Properties/Getty Images 2013

So come on in and soak up some non-spring scenery. The new installation, on view through the end of May, provides a respite from the frantic tourist season, high pollen count, and the (slowly) climbing temperatures.