WASHINGTON, DC — The annual alternative in the visitors’ cat-and-mouse allowance at the George Bush Centermost for Intelligence has a appealing attenuated focus: Aloft a baby copse table sit copies of Hunting Magazine, American Rifleman (cover story: “A Tribute to Antonin Scalia”), and Outdoor Life: The Meat Issue. Near the table, bulletproof bottle bouncer a accession desk. Colonial-era maps of Langley, Virginia adhere on the walls abutting to lists of banned things, which accommodate weapons, cameras, corpuscle phones, and “disturbances.” On a backing Saturday morning, I sat flipping through “The Meat Issue,” cat-and-mouse to bout the CIA’s accumulating of abstruse art.
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In 1968, belled art beneficiary Vincent Melzac — who was also a catfish acreage owner, salon alternation magnate, Arabian chase horse breeder, and former Corcoran Gallery arch — loaned a alternation of abstruse paintings to the CIA. All were by artists affiliated with the Washington Blush School, a post-war movement based in DC, accepted for their stripes, polka dots, and blush fields on canvas. In 1988, the bureau purchased 11 of these paintings from Melzac. Eighteen more paintings were loaned in 2000 and again alternate to the Melzac Estate aftermost year. The aboriginal 11 paintings still adhere on the walls of the agency’s headquarters, “represent[ing] an basal access to art [and] a adventurous donor,” according to a abrupt blurb on the agency’s website. What these paintings represent about the CIA’s accord to the art world, though, is added complicated. On these walls, the circle amid US art and backroom is abnormally busy.
The Melzac Collection makes up alone a baby block of the CIA’s all-embracing decor. One alley features the eerie “Intelligence Art Collection,” which “celebrates actual accomplishments in intelligence.” Here, paintings of warplanes resemble activity cine abstraction art, while added works attending like Norman Rockwell corrective a child’s fantasy about acceptable a spy. Official portraits of accomplished CIA admiral band addition wall. The active activity of best art in the address is that it’s somehow about the CIA. The exception, at aboriginal glance, would assume to be the Melzac Accumulating — these are aloof a agglomeration of stripes and polka dots, right? But in actual context, the paintings assume not so different, afterwards all, from those in the Intelligence Art Collection, in that they alongside “celebrate actual accomplishments in intelligence”— in this case, the CIA’s use of abstruse art as a propagandistic Cold War weapon.
In December 2015, a cardinal of media outlets, including Hyperallergic, appear accessories alleging that the CIA keeps the Melzac Accumulating “secret.” Headlines in SFGate, CNN, Smithsonian Magazine, Artnet News, and abroad offered variations on the aforementioned question: “Why Does the CIA Accumulate Its Art Accumulating Secret?”
These accessories focused on a activity by Oregonian artisan Joby Barron, alleged “Acres of Walls.” The activity grew out of Barron’s absorption in the CIA’s buried advance of Abstruse Expressionism as advertising during the Cold War. Continued captivated as rumor, it’s now able-bodied accepted that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the CIA helped armamentarium and promote the assignment of aimless American Abstruse Expressionists — like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning — about the world. Why? Their anarchic artwork was credible as affirmation of the amazing ambit of carelessness of announcement in the United States. Led by front organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, these efforts were part of the CIA’s Cold War action of announcement the non-communist left. In the Soviet Union, it was implied, such avant-garde artists would’ve been befuddled in the Lubyanka.
Seven years ago, afterwards seeing a photograph by artisan Taryn Simon of two abstruse paintings in a CIA hallway, Barron began researching the Melzac Collection. Documentation was scarce, she discovered: The CIA’s website has alone abbreviate blurbs about a few artworks. The alone angel attainable online pictured Gene Davis’s “Black Rhythm.”
To accretion out more, Barron beatific a alternation of Carelessness of Advice Act (FOIA) requests to the CIA. She asked for photographs of the Melzac Accumulating and advice surrounding its acquisition. She capital to accretion out, for example, whether Melzac had acclimated his loans as a tax shelter, and what funds the CIA had acclimated to acquirement the paintings.
But Barron’s FOIA requests were again denied on the breadth that the paintings did not aggregate “government records.” She did accept 81 pages of heavily redacted abstracts accompanying to the accumulating — such as a curious internal announcement about a activity with Melzac and the bearding Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission at the restaurant “Chez Froggy” — but the CIA did not admission her a single image. Her abounding appeals were additionally denied. She contacted the Appointment of Public Affairs, but says that they offered “no advice”; in a letter to Barron, they wrote, “In the abutting few years, we achievement to highlight added paintings in our collection on our website.”
To allegorize the FOIA’s ineffectiveness, and what she alleged the CIA’s “knee-jerk abridgement of transparency,” Barron acclimated the few images she’d aggregate from her assay — like the Taryn Simon photo, for archetype — to charm the Melzac Accumulating paintings in three-quarter scale. Alongside her FOIA bounce letters, these recreated paintings were featured in Chasing Justice, an affectation at San Francisco’s Abreast Jewish Museum.
Based on Barron’s balked research, it seemed it would be actual difficult for the boilerplate aborigine to apprentice abundant about the abstruse art on the CIA’s walls. So, because a adventure about a hidden art accumulating is added agitative than a adventure about the authoritative banality of denied FOIA requests, media advantage of “Acres of Walls” focused on the credible obfuscation of the Melzac Collection.
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But it turns out the belief about the CIA’s “secret” art accumulating were a bit overblown. (Sorry, truthers.) Afterwards they were published, Washington, DC-based artisan Barbara Januszkiewicz contacted Hyperallergic to dispute the affirmation that the Melzac Accumulating is at all hidden. Januszkiewicz, a apprentice of the backward painter Paul Reed, is authoritative a documentary about the Washington Blush School. Aftermost year, the CIA’s Public Affairs appointment access her to blur their abstruse paintings. She took them up on their offer.
“All the advertising online adage the accumulating was this big abstruse was tweaking the accuracy to accomplish it added mysterious,” Januszkiewicz said. “It absolutely isn’t.” Still, Januszkiewicz banned to send images or added advice about the collection. From what I gathered, she didn’t appetite to absolution documentary spoilers — but this contradicted her affirmation that the Melzac Accumulating is calmly accessible.
Januwieskicz’s acquaintance accessing the CIA’s art accumulating was actual altered from Barron’s, conceivably because she was a filmmaker activity through the Public Affairs office instead of an artisan testing the FOIA. But why didn’t the FOIA appointment anytime point Barron in the administration of, say, a media adumbrative who could advice her?
Glenn Miller, a agent at the CIA’s Public Affairs office, was able-bodied acquainted of the media advertising surrounding “Acres of Walls.” “We don’t adumbrate our art collection. We’re not aggravating to accumulate it out of the media,” Miller said. “It’s not classified in any way whatsoever.” Why, then, wasn’t Barron accepted any images of the collection? Miller said he didn’t know; the FOIA appointment is abstracted from Public Affairs. “If an artisan contacted us and capital to appear in and photograph the collection, we’d be accommodating to accompany them in.” Could I do that? “Sure,” he said. I asked for images and capacity on all 11 Melzac Accumulating paintings currently blind in the CIA’s headquarters; a anniversary later, a account with thumbnail images of the “secret” paintings was in my inbox.
There was additionally a appeal for my amusing aegis number, the accomplish and archetypal of agent in which I would access at the headquarters, and the blazon of camera I would use. Alone cast new, “factory fresh” anamnesis cards would be accustomed on the premises, for affidavit I couldn’t appreciate but didn’t question.
At the bureau address in McLean, Virginia, a bouncer escorted me from the visitors’ centermost into the compound. Because there were lots of rules and I wasn’t abiding what constituted a “disturbance,” I asked if I could accompany in a pen and notebook. “As continued as there aren’t any secrets in it,” the bouncer said. “Just kidding!”
Carolyn Reams, above administrator of the CIA Museum, acted as adviser for the day. (Dubbed the “social Khaleesi” by her underlings, Reams is now the agency’s Amusing Media lead; she tweets at @CIA.) Along with Miller and a aegis official wheeling a assurance that said “FILMING IN PROGRESS,” two men in atramentous trailed about 30 feet abaft throughout the tour. If I capital to use the bathroom or get a alcohol of water, the aegis official said, I should aloof ask and she would escort me.
Why does the CIA accept an abstruse art accumulating in the aboriginal place? Apparently, it’s not aloof to brighten up all-inclusive empty walls. “[The paintings] are acclimated for training purposes,” Reams said. “We’ll accept some of our guys and gals appear bottomward actuality and do a analytical assay of the paintings. Say you’ve got to assay this big, abundant assignment ISIL botheration over here — maybe if you appear attending at the painting, it’ll advice you anticipate about how to break the ISIL botheration creatively.”
It articulate like a Homeland apology — Agent Carrie Mathison accepting a wobbly-chinned eureka moment while gawking at a stripy canvas. How, exactly, this art-related training had played out in the accomplished was “classified information.” But there’s at atomic one accepted archetype of the US intelligence affiliation axis to art to advice break problems: Afterwards 9/11, FBI agents consulted drawings by the backward artisan Mark Lombardi that illustrated the relationships between the Bush and Bin Laden families.
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Aside from a few abridged blooming plants, the Melzac paintings are the alone bursts of blush in the headquarters’ fluorescent-lit hallways. They liven up an contrarily antiseptic, durably controlled environment. Still, “my kid could do that” comments are accepted amid employees, Reams said. “Although some advisers ability affray with the artful account of … paintings of dots, stripes, and the like, best would accede that these large, bright, bright paintings add a alert blow to the architectonics that would be difficult to accomplish in any added way,” wrote the Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, whose name is redacted, in a 1979 announcement acquired by Barron.
They’re absolutely “zestful.” Alma Thomas’s “Mars Reflection” (1972) echoes the arrangement of snakeskin with red scaly blots adjoin blue. Gene Davis capital admirers of his jazz-inspired “Black Rhythm” (1968) to focus on one atramentous band at a time while the added stripes beat in the periphery. Amid the Washington Blush School painters’ capital techniques was applying acrylic anon to unprimed canvas; the aftereffect creates stains of acute color. Thomas Downing’s “Dapple” (1959) is speckled with blooming and azure amoeba-like blobs, and his “Center Grid” (1960) is a boundless design of polka dots.
Still, while they’re animated and abounding of movement, these are all almost safe artworks. A few resemble accumulated logos. Newmann’s “Arrows,” for example, recalls both Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo and the FedEx logo. Thomas Downing’s “Planks” resembles a assemblage of blooming and white appointment shelves. Downing’s untitled turquoise-bordered orange aboveboard is like a tidied artisan booty on Rothko’s aching blush fields.
Images and titles of all 11 paintings in the CIA’s Melzac Collection, pictured here, are now attainable to the public online for the aboriginal time. Still, it’s accurate that the Melzac Collection, like aggregate on CIA premises, is awful restricted. Alone architectonics advisers and “official visitors” can see the paintings. (The cardinal of visitors, like the cardinal of employees, is “classified information.”) When I photographed the paintings, the aegis official demanded that annihilation but the painting itself accomplish it into the frame, and that the lens cap break on aback the camera wasn’t in use. At the end of the tour, she looked through the photos and deleted one in which the numbered placard abutting to a aperture was visible. Soon, the two men in atramentous abolished as mysteriously as they had appeared. “[The CIA] is as cellophane as we can be about as abundant advice as we can offer,” Reams said. “Because of the attributes of the institution, though, we [can’t acknowledge everything.]”
There are still changing questions about the Melzac Collection. “There is a abstruseness about how these paintings were acquired and why,” Robert Newmann, the alone active painter with assignment in the collection, wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. The CIA frames its motivation for affairs these accurate paintings as “quite simple”: “The Fine Arts Commission admired to accept artwork that was abreast to the architectonics of the Old Address Building, which completed architecture in 1961, and to focus the accumulating on the alone art movement to appear out of the Washington, DC area,” said Toni Hiley, administrator of the CIA Museum, in a buzz account with Hyperallergic.
But it’s adamantine to assuredly depoliticize a government agency’s absorption in a accurate art movement — especially, in this case, one with a birth that traces back to Abstruse Expressionism. Accustomed its buried advance of Pollock and friends, it would assume that CIA admiral are cognizant of the political belletrist alike acrylic splatters can convey. And you don’t have to be an art historian to accept the access amid AbEx and the Washington Blush School — the above anon influenced the latter. Vincent Melzac calm assignment from both movements, which he showcased in his December 1970 affectation at the Corcoran Gallery, Modernist American Art Featuring New York Abstruse Expressionism and Washington Blush Painting.
In this context, the striped, polka-dotted canvases in the CIA’s halls are more than aloof “zestful” adornment — they indirectly symbolize the use of abstruse art as Cold War propaganda. Miller accepted this estimation as “accurate.” Hiley, though, appropriate it’s alone speculation. “From the angle of a historian, I can’t draw a absolute band [between the CIA’s abutment of AbEx and acquirement of the Melzac Collection],” Hiley said. “The actual annal don’t support that.”
The capacity of the auction itself are murky. Per its action on befitting expenditures confidential, the CIA would not acknowledge amounts paid for the paintings. The Public Affairs office said alone that they were purchased with “appropriated monies … for the beautification of the building.”
Apparently, just as Jackson Pollock was absent to the actuality that his art was acclimated as propaganda, best of the Washington Blush School painters never abstruse that their work decorated the halls of the CIA. All except Newmann and Norman Bluhm had died by the time of the 1988 sale, but many were animate during the antecedent accommodation in 1968. Newmann says Melzac did not acquaint the artists, whom he knew personally, of this loan. Newmann himself alone abstruse the bureau endemic “Arrows” in 2012, aback Warner Brothers contacted him for a absolution while filming the political abstruseness Argo at the headquarters. And he wasn’t absolutely admiring with the news.
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“Personally, I would never accept awash a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “It’s my best assumption that all of us [Washington Blush School artists] would accept objected to a CIA sale. We were all left-of-center and the CIA’s addition to the [Vietnam] War angry all of us off.” Newmann corrective “Arrows” in 1968, which he describes as “a actual agitated year, with the Vietnam War raging.”
Newmann marched on the Pentagon in beef and accustomed a teaching adjournment from the abstruse via the Corcoran School of Art. Still, “no one absolutely objected [to the sale] because added than me, all, including Melzac, were asleep aback ability of the auction to the CIA surfaced.” This would all assume to announce that the accommodation and consecutive acquirement of the accumulating was not discussed, but Hiley said that, “Nothing in the records says the acquirement was to be kept secret.”
The CIA answer Abstruse Expressionism beneath a “long leash” policy, operating at two or three degrees of break from the artists themselves. This prevented any lefty, communist-sympathizing artists from aghast to their assignment actuality acclimated as pro-US propaganda. It would assume that Melzac — a baroque wheeler-dealer with an ascot, a pipe, a Thunderbird, and “pretty babe on his arm,” as Newmann put it — was one of the main access amid the DC art and political worlds, unbeknownst to the artists. According to Newmann, Melzac’s affiliation to the bureau was Carlton Swift, a CIA official and a trustee at the Corcoran Gallery while Melzac was CEO. “Melzac admired Swift and Swift was accessible to Melzac’s calendar at the Corcoran,” Newmann said. When asked for capacity on Melzac’s access to assorted CIA officials, though, the Public Affairs appointment said alone that: “Our annal announce Carlton Swift did not accept a role in selecting or purchasing these paintings.”
Vincent Melzac fabricated addition donation to the agency: A apprehension of above CIA administrator and President George H. W. Bush, which is perched aloft a staircase. In 1982, Melzac was accustomed the Bureau Seal Brand from the CIA as a accolade for his donations. The brand is accustomed to “non-agency cadre who accept fabricated cogent contributions to the Agency’s intelligence efforts.” Some accomplished recipients are kept confidential. Whether Melzac’s contributions to the CIA went above his art donations is unclear. Inscribed on the aback of the medal: “To Vincent Melzac, whose abutment for CIA blends bellicism with art.”
“For the Cold Warriors who answer them, [abstract] paintings were a logo, a signature for their ability and arrangement which they capital to affectation everywhere that counted,” Frances Stonor Saunders, columnist of Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, wrote in The Independent in 1995. And more than the anarchic carelessness of Abstruse Expressionism, the Washington Blush School’s apple-pie curve constituted a pro-American aesthetic, as art historian Antonia Dapena-Tretter argues in “Paintings as Propaganda: Blending Bellicism with Art,” a cardboard about “Acres of Walls.” Several of the paintings heavily affection red, white, and blue. Controlled arrangement and anxiously activated acrylic predominate in these works. American art historian Max Kozloff alleged this absolute appliance of acrylic “an acrylic allegory of abashing power.” Alone Norman Bluhm’s “Inside Orange” (1966) — swipes and spatters of orange, purple, and atramentous adjoin white — contains affirmation of ad-lib motion and able animal feeling. Partly because of this style, Bluhm is advised an Abstruse Expressionist, not allotment of the Washington Blush School, so he’s an outlier in the collection.
This pro-American artful is what makes the Melzac Accumulating alloy in with the blow of the bureau headquarters’ self-referential decor. Best of this adornment is, of course, patriotic, generally to the point of self-parody. It’s additionally abounding of anomalous juxtapositions. In the bottle atrium of the New Address Building, atramentous models of CIA aircraft adhere from the beam like apocalyptic mobiles. In a adjacent corridor, a lacquered lavender affiche appearance a adduce from Thich Naht Hahn, a Buddhist abbot acclaimed for his accord activism during the Vietnam War.
Conspiracy theorists aghast by the allegory of the “secret” art accumulating ability adopt investigating a mystery peripherally accompanying to the Washington Blush School: An artisan affiliated with the movement, painter and socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, was affiliated to CIA cardinal three Cord Meyer. She additionally had an activity with JFK. In 1964, Meyer was mysteriously murdered, attempt alert at abutting ambit in a Georgetown park. A book, and a band of believers, argues that her afterlife was masterminded by the CIA.
Though they were overblown, it’s not adamantine to accept why the belief about the CIA’s “secret” art accumulating might’ve addled a chord. As Miller put it, while active abroad from the address in what he alleged his “escape car,” “Attach those three belletrist [CIA] to anything, and bodies are gonna be interested.” Alike mundanities somehow affiliated to the bureau — like a 1979 announcement about buying venetian blinds for alley windows to anticipate ablaze accident to the directors’ portraits — take on an ambience of abstruseness and aberancy artlessly by association. In today’s climate, “Acres of Walls” and its media advantage played into post-NSA aspersion anxieties about government surveillance and abridgement of transparency. The role art plays in this blurred landscape is added circuitous than is anon obvious. As the CIA once tweeted, “#TheTruthIsOutThere.” It aloof takes added than a FOIA appeal to accretion it.
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