The Not-so-Secret Art of the CIA

Taryn Simon, ‘The Central Intelligence Agency, Art, CIA Original Headquarters Building, Langley, Virginia’, 2003/2007.

The above photograph, by American artist Taryn Simon, appears innocuous, even banal, at first. It shows two modern paintings hanging on bare white walls, cordoned off by limp rope barriers, while harsh fluorescent ceiling lights cause their reflection to bounce off the glossy laminate floor. But the photograph instantly appears more enticing and enigmatic when one reads the caption, indicating that it was taken at the headquarters of the US Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. Simon’s photograph is part of her 2007 series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, presenting viewpoints that are largely inaccessible to the general public. It is therefore ironic that the photograph would itself provoke a decade of investigation and debate into the limits of government transparency.

Intrigued by the photograph when she first saw it in 2008, Portland-based artist Johanna Barron was inspired to discover more about the CIA’s collection of abstract paintings. However, she could find little available information, save for a single page on the CIA website, without any images, and some passing details in a book about the agency. Although the absence of information was perhaps unsurprising for a cash-strapped federally-funded institution, Barron decided to delve further by submitting a series of FOIA requests. This would be the first step in a complex artistic project that would occupy Barron for years to come.

Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA, 2015. Photo (c) James Rexroad. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

As any researcher who has gone through the arduous process of locating and accessing archival documents can tell you, asking overworked librarians to find material on your behalf rarely delivers results. Barron would have a similar response to her FOIA requests. Her appeals for photographs of the collection and acquisition records, including information about tax breaks for donors and funding for purchases, were repeatedly denied on the grounds that documents relating to the paintings were not “government records” and therefore not covered by FOIA regulations. Once again, a lack of readily-available information that elsewhere would have likely been explained by a processing mix-up or scarce resources, here took on an air of mystery, with the CIA appearing evasive. Barron’s quest for information only accelerated, as she commented: “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason”. Eventually, in 2014, Barron received almost 100 pages of heavily-redacted documentation, that allowed her to piece together more details about the collection.

The abstract paintings that had caught Barron’s eye were part a small group loaned to the CIA by Vincent Melzac, a larger-than-life art collector and former director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. From 1968, Melzac shared with the agency a series of paintings by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School. Twenty years later, the CIA purchased eleven of the works, although after Melzac’s death in 1989, his estate also agreed to continue loaning additional canvases. Barron used this new-found information to create 3/4 scale reproductions of some of the 29 paintings, which she first exhibited in 2015 under the title Acres of Walls. Appearing alongside the redacted documents and details of her interactions with the CIA, Barron presented the installation as a commentary on the limits of government transparency and the absurdity of secrecy for the sake of secrecy.

Barron’s tale of intrigue was readily picked up by the cultural press, with art writers easily believing that the intelligence community was intentionally hiding paintings from the prying public. Artnet asked “Why Won’t the CIA Reveal the Paintings in Its Secret Art Collection?“; CNN demanded “Why won’t the CIA reveal what’s in its art collection?“; Hyperallergic mused “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?“; while the Smithsonian Magazine announced “The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection“! However, the following year, one of the writers whose interest had been piqued by Barron’s project decided to take the investigation further – turning the story on its head.

Gene Davis, ‘Black Rhythm’, 1964. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Alerted by DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz that the CIA art collection might not be as secret as it at first appeared, Carey Dunne, a reporter for Hyperallergic, contacted the agency’s Public Affairs office. She was surprised to find that before long, arrangements were made for her to visit Langley and that she was permitted to make public details of her tour of the art collection, including photographs. Alongside a wide array of art dotted throughout the CIA headquarters, including representational paintings celebrating the agency’s achievements and official portraits of past CIA directors, the abstract paintings from Melzac’s collection took pride of place.

Mundane reasons given for this collection included brightening up the building with art that matched the date of the architecture (construction on the Old Headquarters Building was completed in 1961) and related to Langley’s location in the Washington metropolitan area. However, Dunne uncovered a fascinating aspect to the CIA’s collection of abstract art – that it was also used for training purposes. As Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, explained, agents are asked to analyse the paintings to develop their problem-solving skills: “Say you’ve got to analyze this big, heavy duty ISIL problem over here — maybe if you come look at the painting, it’ll help you think about how to solve the ISIL problem creatively.” It is perhaps for that reason that the abstract paintings included in the collection are rarely random or lacking in content, but are largely constructed from patterns and recognisable shapes.

Robert Newmann, ‘Arrows’, 1968. Courtesy Hyperallergic.

Hyperallergic also suggested that the art collection might have been chosen by the CIA in a nod to the agency’s covert support for Abstract Expressionism during the Cold War. The story Dunne refers to, which has been fuelled by sensationalist articles in the New Yorker and the Independent, is yet another oversimplification and mythologisation of a more complex but less glamorous tale linking art and espionage – and further evidence of the will to sustain a narrative of CIA secrecy that provoked both Johanna Barron’s project and the subsequent press coverage.

Yet if the CIA did maintain some secrecy around its art collection, it may have been for good reason. While researching her article, Dunne contacted Robert Newmann, the last living artist featured in the agency’s collection of abstract painting. Newmann revealed that the artists themselves were not informed by Melzac of the loan of their works to the CIA, and Newmann only discovered this fact in 2012, when Warner Brothers requested his permission to feature the painting Arrows in the Hollywood blockbuster Argo, which was filmed on site at Langley. “Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “We [Washington Color School artists] were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.”

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