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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The CIA Comic Book Airdropped Over Grenada

Operation Urgent Fury, the controversial US-led invasion of Grenada, concluded with a decisive victory for the United States on 15 December 1983. The Reagan administration claimed that this action, the country’s first major military operation since the end of the Vietnam War, was launched in response to appeals for help by Grenada’s neighbouring islands. However, it has also been widely argued that the campaign was instead a ploy aimed at quashing Cuban and Soviet influence in the Caribbean.

In the aftermath of the invasion an aggressive piece of artistic propaganda appeared in support of the official line. GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery, a 14-page comic book, was printed in its thousands and airdropped over the island. The eye-catching, brightly-coloured pamphlet presented Operation Urgent Fury as a glorious defence of democracy by the United States, reimagining its military not as invaders but as liberators from “imminent totalitarian danger”.

The comic was ostensibly sponsored by the fictitious organisation V.O.I.C.E. (Victims Of International Communist Emissaries) … but it later transpired that the book had in fact been produced by the CIA. The agency had secretly commissioned Malcolm Ater of the Commercial Comics Company in Washington, DC to write the script, with illustrations provided by veteran comics artist Jack Sparling.

A PDF version of the full comic book is available for free download from the Government Comics Collection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Images: Front cover and detail from page 3 of GRENADA: Rescued from Rape and Slavery (New York: V.O.I.C.E., 1984).

Recommended: International Spy Museum

When visiting the (American) nation’s capital, there’s a one stop shop to discover everything you never knew you wanted to know about espionage. Since 2002 the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC has been home to the largest collection of spycraft ever placed on public display.

Along winding corridors the museum takes a look at the long history of spying – Sun Tzu to Casanova, the Rosenbergs to cyberwarfare. The Cold War features prominently, including interviews with former KGB and CIA agents, interactive stories of daring missions, and ingenious top-secret gadgets such as a lipstick pistol, microdot cameras and a Bulgarian umbrella. Plus the Cold War takes central stage in two current exhibitions: Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains and Argo Uncovered.

Plans are underway for the museum to move to larger premises, but for the forseeable future it remains at 800 F Street, NW in Washington, DC.

The Graphic Art of CIA: Operation Ajax

In 1953 a Cold War spy mission, jointly staged by the CIA and MI6, would profoundly change the direction of global politics and help build the fragile world in which we live today. Between 15 and 19 August, American and British agents orchestrated the Iranian coup d’état, which overthrew the democratically-elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh.

Mossadegh’s attempts to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and retake control of the country’s oil reserves, seen by many Iranians as an exploitative hangover from British imperialism, made him powerful enemies. The coup – known by MI6 as ‘Operation Boot’ and to the CIA as ‘Operation Ajax’ (TPAJAX) – crushed Iran’s fledgling democracy. In its place the Shah was granted absolute rule of the country, with powerful backing from the United States, until the Iranian Revolution of 1979 created an Islamic republic. Only on the 60th anniversary of the coup, in August 2013, did the CIA publicly admit its involvement.

These dramatic events are the inspiration behind the interactive graphic novel CIA: Operation Ajax. This tale of oil and espionage interweaves authentic CIA documents with over 210 pages of art to produce an innovative Cold War spy thriller. A more in-depth review is provided by Longbox Graveyard.

Image: Still from CIA: Operation Ajax. Courtesy Cognito Comics.

Golden Statue for Laos’ Secret War

After years of French colonial rule, Laos was finally granted autonomy on 19 July 1949 before achieving independence in 1953. Yet its celebrations would be short-lived. Barely a fortnight afterwards a bitter civil war broke out which would divide the country for over two decades.

As the conflict rapidly became a high-stakes Cold War proxy war, the revolutionary communist group, Pathet Lao, and the Royal Lao Government both received extensive support from the rival superpowers. Yet as the Vietnam War become increasingly unpopular in the United States, the CIA’s activities in Laos became known as the ‘Secret War’.

After Communism emerged victorious in 1975, a memorial was erected in the city of Vieng Xai, a Pathet Lao stronghold during the war. The patriotic group statue blends various sculptural traditions and iconographies to riveting effect.

Vieng Xai Statue

Its bright gold finish mirrors much of the Buddhist statuary of Indochina, yet the message of peace is here subverted. The group contains the traditional Communist pairing of a female peasant and male worker, complete with the obligatory hammer and sickle. Yet here they are joined by a third figure of a soldier. While the peasant woman holds the popular Socialist Realist symbol of sheaves of corn, a shotgun is strapped to her back. The central figure brandishes a machine gun, while the grenades on the soldier’s belt increase the sense of menace.
Vieng Xai Statue 2

The soldier also stands with his foot propped on a bomb marked ‘USA’. This is a reminder of nine long years of US aerial bombardment, the heaviest bombing campaign in history, which scarred the country. Earlier this year the United States assigned $12 million towards the clearing of unexploded bombs in Laos, a not-so-secret legacy of the country’s sad history.

Image: Victory statue in Vieng Xay District, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Top – Photo © 2013 David Coleman (HaveCameraWillTravel.com). Bottom – Courtesy Globloggersblog

Rivera Paints the Guatemalan Coup d’État

In one of the most ignoble missions in the CIA’s Cold War history, on 18 June 1954 the intelligence agency led US-backed troops in a covert invasion of Guatemala. The objective: a coup d’état to remove from power the hugely-popular and democratically-elected president, Jacobo Árbenz. The politician had created powerful enemies in the US with his land reforms, which claimed back from the American United Fruit Company vast areas that had been given away by an earlier dictatorship, in gratitude for US support. After Árbenz was overthrown the country was ruled by a military junta for the next 4 decades, during which time the government committed genocide against the remaining Mayan population during the Guatemalan Civil War.

In the aftermath of Árbenz’s deposition and exile, the legendary Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera, responded with a vitriolic canvas. The mockingly-titled Glorious Victory depicts John Foster Dulles, CIA Director (and board member of United Fruit Company) shaking hands with Colonel Castillo Armas, the leader of the coup who would soon take the presidency for himself. At their feet stands an anthropomorphised bomb bearing the grinning face of US President Eisenhower. The trio are surrounded by the slaughtered bodies of Guatemalan workers.

Rivera was a committed communist, who gave a home to Trotsky after his exile from the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union is where the mural (painted on linen) was sent, as a donation to the workers of the USSR. After touring behind the Iron Curtain until 1958 the painting went missing and was thought to have been destroyed. But it was only revealed in 2000 that Rivera’s mural had been in storage for nearly half a century in Moscow’s State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. It enjoyed a triumphant return to Mexico in 2007 for an exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Image: Diego Rivera, Glorious Victory, 1954. Movable mural painted on linen. State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

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