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.”

Here are some other Espionart posts you might enjoy:

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.

Emil Goldfus 2

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.

130809 Jackson Pollock 2

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