For decades, there have been rumors that the CIA’s art collection has hidden meaning.
The abstract paintings at the agency’s Langley HQ aren’t accessible to the public but photographs are published online, allowing art lovers to make up their own minds about a nagging question: is the collection part of a CIA propaganda operation, or is it 'just' art?
The CIA maintains there’s no hidden agenda: “Every day, agency employees walk past several abstract paintings that hang throughout the headquarters buildings. These 29 paintings do not just break up the acres of wall space. They represent an elemental approach to art, a swashbuckling donor (Vincent Melzac), and a connection to the architecture of the original headquarters' building.”
Oregonian artist Joby Barron stirred up conspiracy theories when the CIA refused to give her any information about the paintings that adorn their walls. Barron used the Freedom of Information Act to get the intelligence and later exhibited her reproductions of the art in a 2015 show called Acres of Walls.
Barron’s show highlighted CIA art bought from eccentric collector Vincent Melzac in 1988.
Downing (1928-1985) joined the US Army during the Korean War - although he was never deployed - and later worked as a teacher in Washington, DC. Davis (1920-1985) initially worked as a journalist and sports writer. Both were affiliated with the Washington Color School, which flourished during the US Cold War with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries.
There has been speculation that the CIA promoted Downing’s and Davis’ work to highlight the contrast between Soviet Social Realism and American values, including freedom. If the paintings also convey hidden propaganda messages and cipher codes for foreign spies, then those secrets died with the artists.
Many of the painters in the CIA’s collection focused their work on how the eye perceives color and patterns. Alma Thomas (1881-1978) was a Howard University arts graduate and art teacher who exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.
Robert S. Neuman (1926-2015), an art teacher, printmaker, and artist, enjoyed using symbols in his work. Neuman graduated from university in Moscow (that’s Moscow, Idaho for any conspiracy theorists out there). He later taught and lived in Barcelona, Spain.
Howard Mehring (1931-1978) shared studio space with Downing early on in their careers and he too traveled to Europe. Mehring won a grant during the 1960s and returned to Europe many times before dying of a heart attack in Annapolis, Maryland at age 47. Three of Mehring’s paintings were bought by the CIA.
Norman Bluhm (1921-1911) was an ‘action painter’, an artist who believed the physical act of painting should be apparent in the finished product. The Chicago-born native enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in 1941 and became a WWI B-26 pilot flying missions over North Africa and Europe. Bluhm devoted himself to art after the war, incorporating space and speed into his work.
Did Bluhm also incorporate hidden messages?
No, what you see is what you get, according to Langley. And although the CIA's art collection may not be open to public viewing, the agency said nothing should be read into that either.
“We don’t hide our art collection. We’re not trying to keep it out of the media,” CIA spokesperson Glenn Miller said. “It’s not classified in any way whatsoever."