Daniel Arsham: Jackson Pollock, Number 8

Daniel Arsham: Jackson Pollock, Number 8

What connects the radical 20th century painter Jackson Pollock and the CIA? More than you’d think. Artist Daniel Arsham and host Alice Loxton share the surprising secret history of Pollock’s 1949 masterpiece, Number 8.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects - Episode 1: Daniel Arsham: Jackson Pollock, Number 8

NARRATOR: What ghosts lie hidden in the archives of espionage? What story might an unassuming item yield, when placed under the right light? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects, from SPYSCAPE Studios. Hiding deep within this unusual collection is an item that you have almost certainly seen before. Though I doubt you’ve ever considered it in the context of intelligence history.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Today we're going to be talking about Jackson Pollock's painting Number 8, which was created in 1949.

NARRATOR: What comes to mind when you think of Jackson Pollock? Free-minded radicalism? Intense artistic experimentation? Bohemian New York City? How about The CIA? No, I didn’t think so. Yet it’s the US Central Intelligence Agency that this painting will lead us to if we track its path carefully. This is probably a good moment to introduce my guest.

DANIEL ARSHAM: My name is Daniel Arsham. I am a visual artist living in New York City and my work is often involved with the manipulation of time and our perception of how we catalog it, how we use it, how we move through it, those sorts of things.

NARRATOR: Manipulation. Time. Perception. All these concepts are essential to understanding painting Number 8, the painter who created it, and the so-called Abstract Expressionist movement to which he belonged.

DANIEL ARSHAM: The whole idea of movements was perhaps created by forces outside of the artists themselves. And so, that was certainly interesting to me. And then just looking into the history of how his work may have been used for other means outside of his own direct interests. 

NARRATOR: So let’s turn to painting Number 8, looming large on a white wall, six foot by three.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I'm looking at an image of swirling paint strokes that are composed of drips and drabs, many different colors - greens and reds, and yellows and blacks - that are sitting on a surface, of canvas. And it almost feels like a hurricane movement of a series of tumbleweeds or something sitting on a base background. And the image has no… there's no figurative lock, right? There's nothing to like… lock onto in the image. Your eye moves around the image. And every part of the image is as important as the other in many ways. 

NARRATOR: From our 21st-century vantage point, where Jackson Pollock prints adorn the walls of university dorm rooms and California beach houses alike, this painting might seem pedestrian, unremarkable. But place it in the historical context of the era in which it was made and it will come alive with potentiality.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I think one of the really interesting things in studying this work - and Jackson Pollock in particular - is the idea, in the early 1950s, that was really sort of afraid of what was coming out of the East. This new communist force. The US and the West in general being sort of afraid of that. And I think early in the days of abstract expressionism, there was some rejection in the sort of political circles around what that could mean for American art. This was an era when the cultural wing of the State Department, I think, was very important for speaking and communicating with other countries about American values coming out of post-war. And it's sort of curious that Jackson Pollock was rejected by especially Senators on the right who saw it as - you can think of this kind of like McCarthy era - a rejection of a classical form of art. 

NARRATOR: Initially, artists like Jackson Pollock were distrusted by the conservative state apparatus. The whole Bohemian, New York art scene smacked of the un-American. But gradually that perception began to change.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Later, I think that they saw it as sort of anti-communist in a way because all of what was happening in the Soviet Union was very narrative and figurative. It was work that harkened back to an earlier era that was meant to celebrate a bygone era. And I think, at a certain point, the politicians in the State Department, the cultural arm of the State Department, realized, “This is a very new type of expression.” And they wanted the US and American values to be at the forefront of this new world, right, that was being created. And so, I think they actually saw it as an opportunity to leverage this thing that was so different for their own purposes. 

NARRATOR: To understand how a painter could be leveraged by the US government, first you need to understand one of the key philosophies of the Cold War: soft power.

DANIEL ARSHAM: As the Cold War developed in the ‘50s and moving into the ‘60s, I think there was this idea that - especially for the US - there could be a different sort of war that was won through pleasure in life and people feeling free. The idea around cultural diplomacy was really about showing how Americans of that era were open to anything, were part of a new, expressive, free world where ideas were not restricted and anything goes. It was a very sort of brash and bold feeling. And I think Jackson Pollock, both as an artist, right - so the work he created - but also the guy himself, he was, I think he was from Wyoming. He was like a farmer or a cowboy originally, and ended up on the east end of Long Island, was known for driving in fast cars around, and actually died driving a car, unfortunately, while inebriated. But he was a tough guy. And I think that that's the America that certainly the government and the CIA wanted to project at that moment was both one of power and strength, but also the ability to live your life the way that you saw fit.

NARRATOR: The question was how to quietly promote the work of artists who openly rejected the conservative American mission and who would shun anything resembling state sponsorship. Enter, in 1950, a new division of the CIA: the Propaganda Assets Inventory seen as a crucial investment in psychological warfare and pro-US messaging. Through this operation, the CIA set up a bogus arts agency called Congress for Cultural Freedom - and recruited a cohort of state-funded philanthropists, who, under the CIA’s instruction, funded a very select series of exhibitions. Which brings us back to Pollock and painting Number 8.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Jackson Pollock's Number 8, which was created in 1949, was part of an exhibition that was organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York that toured in the late ‘50s. And the CIA was behind this exhibition.

NARRATOR: Of course, exhibiting the work was only one part of the operation.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Then there's the unseen forces where the CIA was probably behind something as simple as staging people at a cocktail party in London, right? Post-war, and making sure that those people understood what Jackson Pollock meant to wealthy individuals in the United States and that they thought it was important. And we'll never know exactly how they did that. But we can imagine that the CIA would have been very adept at this filtering of information to individuals in power, in culture.

NARRATOR: The first details of the Propaganda Assets Inventory were only declassified in 1966, a full decade after Jackson Pollock died in a car crash. It’s very likely he went to his grave with no idea that he’d been the beneficiary of a CIA propaganda campaign.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I think that Pollock, Rothko, and even critics like Clement Greenberg, would have been super appalled if they knew that the CIA or the government was supporting these artists or these movements covertly - right behind the scenes. It would have gone against their core feeling that they were being free and expressive, right? Not being part of the machinations of this larger government goal.

NARRATOR: Artists like Pollock and Rothko never had a say in the matter. But there’s no questioning the impact that state-orchestrated sponsorship had on their reputations.

DANIEL ARSHAM: I think the CIA certainly made both of those artists global names and arguably, perhaps, had a huge hand in creating this stored value that is in those works up to today.

NARRATOR: You may be tempted to banish this phenomenon to the footnotes of Cold War history - little more than an obscurity born of an obscure time. But for Daniel Arsham, the lines between art and propaganda are still blurred, even now.

DANIEL ARSHAM: Listen. Even up to this day, it's very clear that governments still use culture as a form of diplomacy and as a form of flexing, in a way. I'll give you an example of something that I was involved in, even up to today. The residences of ambassadors globally are normally decorated with American art. So the American ambassador's residence in France, Russia, and China would house works that would showcase the best of American art. And there were a number of years when my work was on display at the American ambassador's residence in London. And that was during the Obama administration that I was asked to loan the work. And, literally, the day that Trump was elected, I got a letter from the cultural wing of the State Department asking if I would like to keep my work there right under this new scenario.

NARRATOR: I’ll leave you to imagine how Daniel Arsham - proud New York bohemian - responded to that. I’m Alice Loxton. More clandestine secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects from SPYSCAPE Studios. If you like this podcast, please give it a five-star rating, or leave a review. Ratings and reviews help other people discover the series and help us bring you more episodes like this one. Or, why not forward the podcast to a friend? And thank you for listening!

Guest Bio

New York based artist Daniel Arsham straddles the line between art, architecture, and performance.

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