Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?

Johanna Barron, “Gene Davis, Black Rhythm” (2015), acrylic on board, 67 x 53 in (all images courtesy the artist/The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco)

Twenty-nine abstract Washington Color School paintings hang in the halls of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But unless you’re one of the CIA’s undisclosed number of employees, your chances of ever seeing these paintings, or even digital images of them, are pretty slim. As Portland-based artist Joby Barron has discovered, the CIA keeps much information about its art collection secret.

Several years ago, when Barron saw a photo by Taryn Simon of two abstract paintings hung in a CIA hallway, she wanted to learn more about the agency’s art collection, but its website only had brief blurbs on a few artworks. Barron filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the agency, hoping they’d provide her with more details and images. But despite several more FOIA requests, the CIA repeatedly refused to give Barron any information about the Melzac Collection.

This Kafkaesque saga inspired Barron’s ongoing project Acres of Walls, in which she attempts to recreate paintings in the Melzac Collection in three-quarter scale based on scraps of descriptions she’s collected from tireless research. “I liked that the CIA wasn’t aware there was this re-created space out in Oregon,” Barron tells Hyperallergic in an email. “I also felt an homage to these artists — as it is with any copying or transcribing, you enter the work in a unique way, and I started to love the Washington Color School painters.” Barron’s paintings, which explore what she calls the government’s absurd “knee-jerk lack of transparency,” are now on view in Chasing Justice, an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. 

Johanna Barron, “Thomas Downing, Fold II” (2015)

Since the CIA never granted Barron a single image, she found most of her information in that large-format shot of a CIA hallway by Taryn Simon, as well as a tell-all book about the CIA. Donated in the 1980s by controversial Republican art collector Vincent Melzac, this particular collection may include works by Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Reed. The CIA’s website only includes information about one of these Washington Color School paintings, Gene Davis’s “Black Rhythm.”

Artist Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA (2015) (image by James Rexroad)
Artist Johanna Barron with selections from her recreation of the Melzac Collection held by the CIA (2015) (photo by James Rexroad)

Some of Barron’s recreated paintings are intentionally left partially blacked out or pixellated, since she couldn’t find complete information about their compositions. They’re also accompanied by ephemera from her futile attempts to communicate with the CIA, including her FOIA rejection letters. “It was frustrating to have my requests denied,” Barron says. “I felt like the FOIA in this case, was a puzzle of semantics, that if I tweaked my request slightly I might get the information. There have been many efforts for FOIA reform, and I think this project is an example of the need for it. I hoped that it could serve as a visual reference of the FOIA process by making the correspondence and research part of the exhibitions.”

It’s enough to make a conspiracy theorist’s head spin. Why keep mum about this art collection? Do these paintings hide secret trap doors in Langley’s walls? Do they contain encrypted Illuminati messages or blow-ups of the NSA’s favorite collected dick pics? Are they abstract portraits of reptilian politicians stripped of their human disguises? The world may never know. 

Joby Barron, "Acres of Walls," installation view, 2015 (photo by James Rexroad)
Johanna Barron, ‘Acres of Walls,’ installation view, 2015 (photo by James Rexroad)

Chasing Justice continues at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (736 Mission Street, San Francisco) until February 21, 2016. 

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