When the Dallas Museum of Art called, Mark Leonard was painting in the desert of Palm Springs, two years after leaving his 26-year tenure in the paintings conservation department at the Getty.
Last July, Leonard headed to Texas to lead the museum’s newest project, lured by an air of transformation at the century-old institution. Fresh off debuting a forward-thinking model of free membership and admission in January, the DMA is set to break ground on its first ever conservation studio. With a glass wall adjoining a public gallery, it will, as Leonard says, “bring conservation out of the basement and give it a public face.”
Meanwhile, Leonard’s recent paintings—a beautiful, rigorous suite of 11 works that take Constable’s Cloud Studies into new, abstract territory—are on view through March 10 at Yale’s Center for British Art, the result of his week as artist-in-residence there.
A.i.A. spoke with Leonard about his long career—which began at the Metropolitan Museum and has included restoration of works by Velázquez, Fragonard, and Renoir, among many more, for institutions such as the Frick Collection and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.—Phyllis Fong
You studied studio art originally, as part of a multidisciplinary degree. How did you make the move to conservation?
I went to Oberlin College, which at that time had a regional conservation center associated with its art museum that serviced a variety of other Midwest museums. Oberlin had an undergraduate degree in art conservation that combined studio art, art history, and chemistry. So it was a natural fit, a preparatory degree to then go into graduate school and study art conservation. It gave me a chance to keep doing my own work but at the same time have a clear career path, and I loved the idea of being able to work with great works of art.
Have there been any especially meaningful experiences?
All of them! The nice thing about conservation work is that it’s always a challenge, there’s always something exciting that comes across your easel. I was very lucky when I was young to work at a place like the Metropolitan Museum. My mentor there was very generous in making sure that we all had the chance to work on really great works of art, so that we would get used to having those sitting on our easels when we went to work in the morning. And he gave me Rembrandt’s Aristotle With a Bust of Homer. That’s an early memory. It was just astonishing that I could go into work as a kid in his twenties and have that sitting there.
You took a two-year break to pursue your own work as an artist. Had you been painting on the side over the years?
When I left Oberlin and moved to New York, I didn’t have a studio. I was a full-time graduate student and I just didn’t have any time or place, so I stopped working. That was fine because I had dedicated myself to becoming a paintings restorer. But in the back of my mind, there was the thought that at some point I would get the urge to do it again. Toward the end of my tenure at the Getty, I started to do it again in the evenings and weekends, and it developed into a much stronger urge to give it chance full time. I had had a wonderful career at the Getty but things had run their course. So I decided to retire. I had some modest success; a dealer in L.A. took an interest in my work and gave me a show [Leonard’s “Weaving” series at Louis Stern Fine Arts]. And then Yale invited me to do a body of work that was somehow related to the collection, because I had been associated with those collections.
How did the move to Dallas come about?
I’d moved to Palm Springs and was living in the desert after I retired. I was a little bit too young to move to a retirement vacation community, so when Dallas called I went down, took a look, and thought, let’s do this for a while. Palm Springs will always be there. The arts in Dallas and North Texas are really going through some interesting growths and transformations, so it’s a really interesting time to be here. You know, when I opted to leave the Met, the Getty in most New Yorkers’ eyes was a joke. It was this odd little thing on the beach in Malibu. There was not a single person in New York who didn’t tell me that I was throwing my life and career away by moving to California. But my feeling was, I could have spent my entire life at the Met happily, but working at an institution like that is maintaining traditions that are already clearly established. The Getty gave me a chance to build new traditions, to start from scratch, and I have the same sense here.
Have you gotten a chance to assess the DMA collection? It differs from the Getty’s, which is highly specific, in that there’s more modern and contemporary, for instance.
It’s an ongoing process. In terms of the paintings collection, I have a pretty good sense. I’ve got a list of all the priorities—1s, 2s, and 3s—so when I do move into the studio I’ll be able to start on that list. The collection has been very well cared for in the past, but it’s a huge collection—it’s the region’s only encyclopedic museum, with art from all places and all times—so there are still a lot of needs.
I admire your Constable studies at the Yale Center for British Art, the product of your week as artist-in-residence in fall 2011. Tell me about that project.
The first thing I did was a series of color studies. I deconstructed each of the pictures into its respective palette. That was a way of getting to know the pictures, to understand what Constable used in terms of his pigments and materials. I was also thinking about how the pictures were composed. A picture might look like a snapshot of a nice sunnyor cloudy landscape on a British afternoon, but there’s actually nothing random about it. You have to realize it took Constable a couple of hours to do these things. The sky was constantly moving; you’re capturing pieces of it but you have to somehow put it into a whole that’s meaningful as a work of art. And I was also interested in what was going on in landscape painting at the time. German landscape painters, like Caspar David Friedrich in the 1830s, a little later but not much, were doing something very different. They really went for this symbolist, mystical, highly spiritual approach to landscape, and I wanted to have that element. After my week there, I went back to Palm Springs and did the series.
What made you choose to translate Constable’s skies and landscapes into a more abstract, geometric representation?
The grid structure is the reason for that-it’s an underlying framework that I’ve always liked to have. A lot of artists have that: Agnes Martin, who always works in a grid. A lot of people don’t realize that Bridget Riley does incredibly fluid pictures, but they’re built on an underlying grid. She makes paper cutouts that she assembles on a grid and then they become these fluid things, but there’s structure underneath. That’s just something that I like and respond to. It may also have to do with the under-drawings in Northern European Renaissance paintings, which are grids of sorts. And artists like to square off their works to transfer them. I like that sense of order.
Having spent time as both a painter and a restorer, what carries over from each discipline? Is there conflict?
One of the reasons I retired from the Getty was because I really did feel a conflict. When you are a paintings restorer your job is to disappear. All that matters is what the artist has to say; everything I do is designed to make the artist’s voice as clear as possible. But as an artist, it’s your job to get your soul up on the easel, to be as expressive as possible. I found it very difficult to turn one on and the other off during the course of a week. It really was wrenching. So I turned one off completely; I just did my own work for a few years. What was nice about the Constable project was that it gave me a chance to work with Old Master paintings that I knew well and work with my own pictures at the same time. It made that clear turn-on, turn-off division much less problematic. I can do it now in a way I couldn’t before because of what I learned from that project.
Tell me about the plans for the DMA’s conservation studio, which is set to break ground in April and open by Labor Day.
There will be an adjoining public gallery, where we’re going to do exhibitions about materials and techniques and how works of art are made and restored, with a view, a glass wall, into the conservation studio, so the restoration work will be done in public view. You’ll be able to see what’s going on and understand what you’re looking at in the gallery. It’s a way of bringing conservation out of the basement and giving it a public face. Because it’s such an accessible space, it sends a message that conservation is part of what the Dallas Museum of Art does. This is a big institution with a history, but because the city is so open to change and experimentation, there’s the palpable feeling that you can create new traditions and build something here that hasn’t happened elsewhere before. That’s to me a really interesting thing and a big reason I came.