The KGB Spy Who Became a New York Artist

Emil GoldfusIrregular working hours, frequent trips out of town, a fondness for radical politics… The more unconventional aspects of life as an artist were the reasons why it proved to be such an effective cover for one KGB spy.

A British national of Russian descent, Vilyam Genrikhovich Fisher (also known as Rudolf Ivanovich Abel) was recruited into the KGB during World War II and sent to the United States as an undercover agent in 1948. There he spent nine years undertaking missions across the country with the aim of smuggling atomic secrets to Russia. In 1953 Fisher arrived in Brooklyn under the alias Emil Goldfus and began posing as a struggling painter and photographer, while secretly leading a New York-based spy ring. With the help of a duped art student, Burton Silverman, the spy worked on his painting technique and built up a networks of artist friends who shared his taste for realism in the city of Abstract Expressionism.

Fisher was eventually discovered and arrested in 1957 when the FBI finally cracked the Hollow Nickel Case (the name in reference to the way by which information was passed between spies). On 15 November 1957 he was sentenced to serve 45 years in prison. However, Fisher ultimately got a lucky break when only four years into his sentence he was exchanged for Gary Powers, the pilot of the ill-fated U-2 spy plane which in 1960 was shot down in Soviet airspace during a reconnaissance mission.

The fascinating story of the spy-artist known as Emil Goldfus was recently retold by Silverman’s son: The Russian Spy Who Duped my Dad.

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Images (top to bottom): Emil Goldfus in the studio, 1957. Photo by Burton Silverman; Portrait of Emil Goldfus by Burton Silverman, 1958. Courtesy Silverman Studios Inc.

I’m Glad the CIA is ‘Immoral’

On 18 September the US Central Intelligence Agency celebrated its 66th birthday. The CIA’s clandestine support for art during the Cold War is now well-known. Frances Stonor Saunders’ 1995 article in the Independent declaring that Modern Art was CIA ‘Weapon’ remains a popular introduction to Cold War painting and was developed into the best-seller, Who Paid the Piper?: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (Granta, 2000).

pollock_5While the full story is rather more complicated, and therefore less exciting, the CIA certainly played its part. Operating under the imaginatively-titled Operation Mockingbird, the agency provided covert financial support to several cultural organisations promoting American modernist art, with the hope that it would be seen internationally as evidence for the ‘free’ art produced in a ‘free’ America. The story broke in 1967, published first in Rampants, a left-wing journal, before being picked up by the New York Times. In reply, the man behind the mission, Thomas Braden, took to the Saturday Evening Post to boldly declare: I’m Glad the CIA is ‘Immoral’.

Image: Jackson Pollock, photographed for Life magazine

Recommended Read: How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art

Serge Guilbaut. How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

In the thirty years since it was first published, Serge Guilbaut’s account of how Cold War ideology shaped the visual arts still stands as the best book in its field. French-born Guilbaut begins his tale in Paris and asks the question: how and why in less than a decade did the centre of the art world shift from the French capital to New York? His answer is eye-opening, revealing the figures and institutions who were quietly working to promote the American avant-garde in the early years of the Cold War. A look at the chapter breakdown succintly summarises Guilbaut’s conclusions:

1. New York, 1935–1941: The De-Marxization of the Intelligentsia
2. The Second World War and the Attempt to Establish an Independent American Art
3. The Creation of an American Avant-Garde, 1945–1947
4. Success: How New York Stole the Notion of Modernism from the Parisians, 1948


While the scholarly narrative means this might not be a page-turner and requires concentration, it is well worth the effort to gain a deeper understanding of Western modernism.

On sale from The University of Chicago Press.

Installation view of the exhibition Road to Victory, 1942. Photograph by Samuel Gottscho. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York

Exhibition of the Month: Richard Diebenkorn

Now into its final month, Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966 concludes its critically-acclaimed run at the de Young Museum on 29 September. The exhibition focuses on the transformative years the painter spent in Northern California, when he abandoned Abstract Expressionism in favour of an increasingly representational approach. Whilst heralding what became known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement, Diebenkorn’s experimentation was divisive due to the political significance attached to American abstract painting at the time.

In 1965 Diebenkorn’s interest took him where few westerners had been before him when he travelled to the USSR. The artist and his wife visited Moscow and Leningrad in order to view paintings by Matisse, which had suffered a tempestuous fate since falling into the hands of the Soviet authorities. Upon his return to the United States Diebenkorn commemorated his visit in the painting Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad.

In case you can’t make it to San Francisco in time, the exhibition transfers to the Palm Springs Art Museum from 26 October 2013.


Image: Richard Diebenkorn, Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, 1965. Courtesy The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation

The Greatest Living Painter in the United States?

On 8 August 1949, Abstract Expressionism decisively entered the American national psyche when the popular weekly magazine LIFE asked of Jackson Pollock, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ Leaning against one of his enigmatic ‘drip’ canvases, cigarette in mouth and oozing anti-establishment cool in a pose reminiscent of Hollywood heroes of the era such as James Dean, Pollock immediately became the poster boy for this controversial new movement in American art.

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The ambiguous title and article in LIFE, which appeared both to praise and mock Pollock and his art, marked the turning point when American abstraction went from the margins to the mainstream. While Abstract Expressionism would continue to be celebrated and vilified in equal measure, the movement spearheaded the establishment of New York as the global centre for the artistic avant-garde and came to represent the country’s national artistic identity during the early Cold War.

The 1949 photoshoot with Pollock can be viewed on the LIFE website.

Image: LIFE, Vol. 27, No. 6, 8 August 1949. Photography by Martha Holmes. Courtesy Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

What & Where: Lenin goes Abstract

What: Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III by Art & Language
Where: Tate Britain, London, UK

Uninitiated visitors to Tate Britain have been left scratching their heads while contemplating Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III.

It is one of a series of paintings by Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, British artists operating under the collective Art & Language. This tongue-in-cheek nod to the Cold War battle between the painting styles of Socialist Realism and Abstract Expressionism has been described as ‘an ironic proposal for an impossible picture, a kind of exasperated joke’. You can read more about the painting in Essays on Art & Language by Charles Harrison (available on Google Books).

See the painting on the Tate website or on display at Tate Britain.

Art & Language, Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III

Image: Art & Language (Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden), Portrait of V.I. Lenin with Cap, in the Style of Jackson Pollock III, 1980. Courtesy Tate