Thomas Downing, “Center Grid” (ca. 1960), detail (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

WASHINGTON, DC — The magazine selection in the visitors’ waiting room at the George Bush Center for Intelligence has a pretty narrow focus: Atop a small wood 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 glass shields a reception desk. Colonial-era maps of Langley, Virginia hang on the walls next to lists of prohibited things, which include weapons, cameras, cell phones, and “disturbances.” On a rainy Saturday morning, I sat flipping through “The Meat Issue,” waiting to tour the CIA’s collection of abstract art. 

In 1968, notorious art collector Vincent Melzac — who was also a catfish farm owner, salon chain magnate, Arabian race horse breeder, and former Corcoran Gallery chief — loaned a series of abstract paintings to the CIA. All were by artists affiliated with the Washington Color School, a post-war movement based in DC, known for their stripes, polka dots, and color fields on canvas. In 1988, the agency purchased 11 of these paintings from Melzac. Eighteen more paintings were loaned in 2000 and then returned to the Melzac Estate last year. The original 11 paintings still hang on the walls of the agency’s headquarters, “represent[ing] an elemental approach to art [and] a swashbuckling donor,” according to a brief blurb on the agency’s website. What these paintings represent about the CIA’s relationship to the art world, though, is more complicated. On these walls, the intersection between US art and politics is especially busy.


Joby Barron, “Gene Davis, Black Rhythm” (2016)

The Melzac Collection makes up only a small chunk of the CIA’s eclectic decor. One hallway features the eerie “Intelligence Art Collection,” which “celebrates historical accomplishments in intelligence.” Here, paintings of warplanes resemble action movie concept art, while other works look like Norman Rockwell painted a child’s fantasy about becoming a spy. Official portraits of past CIA directors line another wall. The running theme of most art in the headquarters is that it’s somehow about the CIA. The exception, at first glance, would seem to be the Melzac Collection — these are just a bunch of stripes and polka dots, right? But in historical context, the paintings seem not so different, after all, from those in the Intelligence Art Collection, in that they indirectly “celebrate historical accomplishments in intelligence”— in this case, the CIA’s use of abstract art as a propagandistic Cold War weapon.

In December 2015, a number of media outlets, including Hyperallergic, published articles alleging that the CIA keeps the Melzac Collection “secret.” Headlines in SFGate, CNN, Smithsonian Magazine, Artnet News, and elsewhere offered variations on the same question: “Why Does the CIA Keep Its Art Collection Secret?

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

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

These articles focused on a project by Oregonian artist Joby Barron, called “Acres of Walls.” The project grew out of Barron’s interest in the CIA’s covert promotion of Abstract Expressionism as propaganda during the Cold War. Long held as rumor, it’s now well known that in the 1950s and ‘60s, the CIA helped fund and promote the work of unwitting American Abstract Expressionists — like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning — around the world. Why? Their anarchic artwork was seen as evidence of the extraordinary scope of freedom of expression in the United States. Led by front organizations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, these efforts were part of the CIA’s Cold War strategy of promoting the non-communist left. In the Soviet Union, it was implied, such avant-garde artists would’ve been thrown in the Lubyanka.

Seven years ago, after seeing a photograph by artist Taryn Simon of two abstract paintings in a CIA hallway, Barron began researching the Melzac Collection. Documentation was scarce, she discovered: The CIA’s website has only short blurbs about a few artworks. The only image available online pictured Gene Davis’s “Black Rhythm.”

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

Joby Barron, “Acres of Walls,” installation view, 2015 (photo by James Rexroad)

To find out more, Barron sent a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the CIA. She asked for photographs of the Melzac Collection and information surrounding its acquisition. She wanted to find out, for example, whether Melzac had used his loans as a tax shelter, and what funds the CIA had used to purchase the paintings.

But Barron’s FOIA requests were repeatedly denied on the grounds that the paintings did not constitute “government records.” She did receive 81 pages of heavily redacted documents related to the collection — such as a curious internal memo about a meeting with Melzac and the unnamed Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission at the restaurant “Chez Froggy” — but the CIA did not grant her a single image. Her many appeals were also denied. She contacted the Office of Public Affairs, but says that they offered “no advice”; in a letter to Barron, they wrote, “In the next few years, we hope to highlight other paintings in our collection on our website.”

To illustrate the FOIA’s ineffectiveness, and what she called the CIA’s “knee-jerk lack of transparency,” Barron used the few images she’d gathered from her research — like the Taryn Simon photo, for example — to recreate the Melzac Collection paintings in three-quarter scale. Alongside her FOIA rejection letters, these recreated paintings were featured in Chasing Justice, an exhibit at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Based on Barron’s stymied research, it seemed it would be very difficult for the average citizen to learn much about the abstract art on the CIA’s walls. So, because a story about a hidden art collection is more exciting than a story about the bureaucratic tedium of denied FOIA requests, media coverage of “Acres of Walls” focused on the apparent obfuscation of the Melzac Collection.


Thomas Downing, “Center Grid” (ca 1960) 72 x 72″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

But it turns out the stories about the CIA’s “secret” art collection were a bit overblown. (Sorry, truthers.) After they were published, Washington, DC-based artist Barbara Januszkiewicz contacted Hyperallergic to dispute the claim that the Melzac Collection is at all hidden. Januszkiewicz, a student of the late painter Paul Reed, is making a documentary about the Washington Color School. Last year, the CIA’s Public Affairs office invited her to film their abstract paintings. She took them up on their offer.

“All the hype online saying the collection was this big secret was tweaking the truth to make it more mysterious,” Januszkiewicz said. “It really isn’t.” Still, Januszkiewicz refused to send images or other information about the collection. From what I gathered, she didn’t want to release documentary spoilers — but this contradicted her claim that the Melzac Collection is easily accessible.

Januwieskicz’s experience accessing the CIA’s art collection was very different from Barron’s, perhaps because she was a filmmaker going through the Public Affairs office instead of an artist testing the FOIA. But why didn’t the FOIA office ever point Barron in the direction of, say, a media representative who could help her?

A detail of the checklist sent to the author by the CIA (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

A detail of the checklist sent to the author by the CIA’s Public Affairs Office (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Glenn Miller, a spokesperson at the CIA’s Public Affairs office, was well aware of the media hype surrounding “Acres of Walls.” “We don’t hide our art collection. We’re not trying to keep it out of the media,” Miller said. “It’s not classified in any way whatsoever.” Why, then, wasn’t Barron granted any images of the collection? Miller said he didn’t know; the FOIA office is separate from Public Affairs. “If an artist contacted us and wanted to come in and photograph the collection, we’d be willing to bring them in.” Could I do that? “Sure,” he said. I asked for images and details on all 11 Melzac Collection paintings currently hanging in the CIA’s headquarters; a week later, a list with thumbnail images of the “secret” paintings was in my inbox.

There was also a request for my social security number, the make and model of vehicle in which I would arrive at the headquarters, and the type of camera I would use. Only brand new, “factory fresh” memory cards would be allowed on the premises, for reasons I couldn’t fathom but didn’t question.


Gene Davis, “Black Rhythm” (1964) (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

At the agency headquarters in McLean, Virginia, a guard escorted me from the visitors’ center into the compound. Because there were lots of rules and I wasn’t sure what constituted a “disturbance,” I asked if I could bring in a pen and notebook. “As long as there aren’t any secrets in it,” the guard said. “Just kidding!”

Carolyn Reams, former director of the CIA Museum, acted as docent for the day. (Dubbed the “social Khaleesi” by her underlings, Reams is now the agency’s Social Media lead; she tweets at @CIA.) Along with Miller and a security official wheeling a sign that said “FILMING IN PROGRESS,” two men in black trailed about 30 feet behind throughout the tour. If I wanted to use the restroom or get a drink of water, the security official said, I should just ask and she would escort me.


Alma Thomas, “Mars Reflection” (1972) (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Why does the CIA have an abstract art collection in the first place? Apparently, it’s not just to brighten up vast empty walls. “[The paintings] are used for training purposes,” Reams said. “We’ll have some of our guys and gals come down here and do a critical analysis of the paintings. 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 sounded like a Homeland parody — Agent Carrie Mathison having a wobbly-chinned eureka moment while gawking at a stripy canvas. How, exactly, this art-related training had played out in the past was “classified information.” But there’s at least one known example of the US intelligence community turning to art to help solve problems: After 9/11, FBI agents consulted drawings by the late artist Mark Lombardi that illustrated the relationships between the Bush and Bin Laden families.

Aside from a few potted green plants, the Melzac paintings are the only bursts of color in the headquarters’ fluorescent-lit hallways. They liven up an otherwise antiseptic, rigidly controlled environment. Still, “my kid could do that” comments are common among employees, Reams said. “Although some employees might quarrel with the artistic worth of … paintings of dots, stripes, and the like, most would agree that these large, bright, colorful paintings add a zestful touch to the building that would be difficult to achieve in any other way,” wrote the Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, whose name is redacted, in a 1979 memo obtained by Barron.

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Robert Newmann, “Arrows” (1968) (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

They’re certainly “zestful.” Alma Thomas’s “Mars Reflection” (1972) echoes the texture of snakeskin with red scaly blots against blue. Gene Davis wanted viewers of his jazz-inspired “Black Rhythm” (1968) to focus on one colored stripe at a time while the other stripes vibrate in the periphery. Among the Washington Color School painters’ main techniques was applying paint directly to unprimed canvas; the effect creates stains of intense color. Thomas Downing’s “Dapple” (1959) is speckled with green and turquoise amoeba-like blobs, and his “Center Grid” (1960) is a dizzying diamond of polka dots.

Still, while they’re jazzy and full of movement, these are all relatively safe artworks. A few resemble corporate logos. Newmann’s “Arrows,” for example, recalls both Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo and the FedEx logo. Thomas Downing’s “Planks” resembles a stack of green and white office shelves. Downing’s untitled turquoise-bordered orange square is like a tidied designer take on Rothko’s aching color fields.

Images and titles of all 11 paintings in the CIA’s Melzac Collection, pictured here, are now accessible to the public online for the first time. Still, it’s true that the Melzac Collection, like everything on CIA premises, is highly restricted. Only building employees and “official visitors” can see the paintings. (The number of visitors, like the number of employees, is “classified information.”) When I photographed the paintings, the security official demanded that nothing but the painting itself make it into the frame, and that the lens cap stay on when 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 next to a door was visible. Soon, the two men in black disappeared as mysteriously as they had appeared. “[The CIA] is as transparent as we can be about as much information as we can offer,” Reams said. “Because of the nature of the institution, though, we [can’t reveal everything.]”

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Norman Bluhm, “Inside Orange” (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

There are still unanswered questions about the Melzac Collection. “There is a mystery about how these paintings were acquired and why,” Robert Newmann, the only living painter with work in the collection, wrote in an email to Hyperallergic. The CIA frames its motivation for buying these particular paintings as “quite simple”: “The Fine Arts Commission wished to have artwork that was contemporary to the architecture of the Old Headquarters Building, which completed construction in 1961, and to focus the collection on the only art movement to come out of the Washington, DC area,” said Toni Hiley, director of the CIA Museum, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic.

But it’s hard to convincingly depoliticize a government agency’s interest in a particular art movement — especially, in this case, one with a lineage that traces back to Abstract Expressionism. Given its covert promotion of Pollock and friends, it would seem that CIA officials are cognizant of the political messages even paint splatters can convey. And you don’t have to be an art historian to understand the connections between AbEx and the Washington Color School — the former directly influenced the latter. Vincent Melzac collected work from both movements, which he showcased in his December 1970 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery, Modernist American Art Featuring New York Abstract Expressionism and Washington Color Painting.


Thomas Downing, “Untitled” (1958-59) 91 x 85″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

In this context, the striped, polka-dotted canvases in the CIA’s halls are more than just “zestful” decor — they indirectly symbolize the use of abstract art as Cold War propaganda. Miller confirmed this interpretation as “accurate.” Hiley, though, suggested it’s only speculation. “From the perspective of a historian, I can’t draw a direct line [between the CIA’s support of AbEx and purchase of the Melzac Collection],” Hiley said. “The historical records don’t support that.”

The details of the sale itself are murky. Per its policy on keeping expenditures confidential, the CIA would not disclose amounts paid for the paintings. The Public Affairs office said only that they were purchased with  “appropriated monies … for the beautification of the building.”


Thomas Downing, “Planks” (1967) 96 x 54″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Apparently, just as Jackson Pollock was oblivious to the fact that his art was used as propaganda, most of the Washington Color School painters never learned 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 alive during the initial loan in 1968. Newmann says Melzac did not inform the artists, whom he knew personally, of this loan. Newmann himself only learned the agency owned “Arrows” in 2012, when Warner Brothers contacted him for a release while filming the political thriller Argo at the headquarters. And he wasn’t entirely pleased with the news.

“Personally, I would never have sold a painting to the CIA,” Newmann said. “It’s my best guess that all of us [Washington Color School artists] would have objected to a CIA sale. We were all left-of-center and the CIA’s contribution to the [Vietnam] War turned all of us off.” Newmann painted “Arrows” in 1968, which he describes as “a very turbulent year, with the Vietnam War raging.”


Thomas Downing, “Dapple” (ca 1959) 74 x 71″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Newmann marched on the Pentagon in protest and received a teaching deferment from the draft via the Corcoran School of Art. Still, “no one actually objected [to the sale] because other than me, all, including Melzac, were dead when knowledge of the sale to the CIA surfaced.” This would all seem to indicate that the loan and subsequent purchase of the collection was not discussed, but Hiley said that, “Nothing in the records says the purchase was to be kept secret.”

The CIA promoted Abstract Expressionism under a “long leash” policy, operating at two or three degrees of separation from the artists themselves. This prevented any lefty, communist-sympathizing artists from objecting to their work being used as pro-US propaganda. It would seem that Melzac — a flamboyant wheeler-dealer with an ascot, a pipe, a Thunderbird, and “pretty girl on his arm,” as Newmann put it — was one of the main connections between the DC art and political worlds, unbeknownst to the artists. According to Newmann, Melzac’s connection to the agency was Carlton Swift, a CIA official and a trustee at the Corcoran Gallery while Melzac was CEO. “Melzac liked Swift and Swift was helpful to Melzac’s agenda at the Corcoran,” Newmann said. When asked for details on Melzac’s connections to various CIA officials, though, the Public Affairs office said only that: “Our records indicate Carlton Swift did not have a role in selecting or purchasing these paintings.”


Norman Bluhm, “Inside Orange” (1966), detail (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Vincent Melzac made another donation to the agency: A bust of former CIA director and President George H. W. Bush, which is perched atop a staircase. In 1982, Melzac was given the Agency Seal Medallion from the CIA as a reward for his donations. The medallion is given to “non-agency personnel who have made significant contributions to the Agency’s intelligence efforts.” Some past recipients are kept confidential. Whether Melzac’s contributions to the CIA went beyond his art donations is unclear. Inscribed on the back of the medal: “To Vincent Melzac, whose support for CIA blends patriotism with art.”

“For the Cold Warriors who promoted them, [abstract] paintings were a logo, a signature for their culture and system which they wanted to display everywhere that counted,” Frances Stonor Saunders, author of Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War, wrote in The Independent in 1995. And more than the anarchic abandon of Abstract Expressionism, the Washington Color School’s clean lines constituted a pro-American aesthetic, as art historian Antonia Dapena-Tretter argues in “Paintings as Propaganda: Blending Patriotism with Art,” a paper about “Acres of Walls.” Several of the paintings heavily feature red, white, and blue. Controlled pattern and meticulously applied paint predominate in these works. American art historian Max Kozloff called this precise application of paint “an acrylic metaphor of unsettling power.” Only Norman Bluhm’s “Inside Orange” (1966) — swipes and spatters of orange, purple, and black against white — contains evidence of spontaneous motion and unfettered human feeling. Partly because of this style, Bluhm is considered an Abstract Expressionist, not part of the Washington Color School, so he’s an outlier in the collection.


Howard Mehring, “Untitled” (1959) 102 ¼ x 96″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

This pro-American aesthetic is what makes the Melzac Collection blend in with the rest of the agency headquarters’ self-referential decor. Most of this decor is, of course, patriotic, often to the point of self-parody. It’s also full of dissonant juxtapositions. In the glass atrium of the New Headquarters Building, black models of CIA aircraft hang from the ceiling like ominous mobiles. In a nearby corridor, a lacquered lavender poster features a quote from Thich Naht Hahn, a Buddhist monk famous for his peace activism during the Vietnam War.

Conspiracy theorists disappointed by the myth of the “secret” art collection might prefer investigating a mystery peripherally related to the Washington Color School: An artist affiliated with the movement, painter and socialite Mary Pinchot Meyer, was married to CIA number three Cord Meyer. She also had an affair with JFK. In 1964, Meyer was mysteriously murdered, shot twice at close range in a Georgetown park. A book, and a cult of believers, argues that her death was masterminded by the CIA.


Howard Mehring, “Untitled” (1959) 101 x 101″ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Though they were overblown, it’s not hard to understand why the stories about the CIA’s “secret” art collection might’ve struck a chord. As Miller put it, while driving away from the headquarters in what he called his “escape car,” “Attach those three letters [CIA] to anything, and people are gonna be interested.” Even mundanities somehow connected to the agency — like a 1979 memo about buying venetian blinds for hallway windows to prevent light damage to the directors’ portraits — take on an aura of mystery and strangeness simply by association. In today’s climate, “Acres of Walls” and its media coverage played into post-NSA scandal anxieties about government surveillance and lack of transparency. The role art plays in this opaque landscape is more complex than is immediately obvious. As the CIA once tweeted, “#TheTruthIsOutThere.” It just takes more than a FOIA request to find it.

Howard Mehring, “Untitled” (ca. 1960) 91 ¾ x 81 ¾ (Image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering arts and culture. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Baffler, The Village Voice, and elsewhere.

One reply on “A Visit to the CIA’s “Secret” Abstract Art Collection”

  1. This is all very interesting because there was another side to the presumed role of Abstract Expressionists during the Cold War.

    Many cultural leaders, especially those representing the “right” side of the political coin, warned that this modern art was a communist plot to debase American art and culture.

    Rather than seeing the work of Pollack and other non-objective artists as representing the advance of American political thought and the freedoms we enjoy, they believed that this type of work would ultimately lead to the decline of American civilization.

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