The CIA Won’t Reveal What’s in its Secret Art Collection

An art installation questions why the CIA is keeping mum about a series of abstract paintings

johanna barron
Artist Johanna Barron's recreation of a Gene Davis painting called "Black Rhythm" that belongs to the CIA's art collection. Johanna Barron, via the Contemporary Jewish Museum

There are 29 paintings hanging on the walls of the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. But as Portland artist Johanna Barron discovered first-hand, if you want to learn more about them than what's given in the pithy descriptions provided on the Agency’s website, you'll likely be out of luck. Barron filed several Freedom of Information Act requests to attain information about the paintings but got nowhere.

Instead of giving up, however, Barron turned frustration into inspiration. In a new exhibition in San Francisco, the artist tries to recreate the mysterious paintings from the tiny snippets of description she has pieced together from reams of research and denied requests. “I felt this increasing need to try to uncover details that seemed to be kept secret for no logical reason,” she tells Jessica Zack for SFGate.

The artworks in question were loaned to the CIA during the 1980s by a collector named Vincent Melzac. The paintings are reportedly abstract pieces belonging to the Washington Color School movement that is characterized by large solid areas of colored paint. The CIA’s collection may contain works by artists including Paul Reed, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring and Kenneth Noland, but Barron's seemingly simple requests for such information were denied over and over again, Eileen Kinsella reports for ArtNet News.

“In some ways this project feels like a public service about government transparency,” Barron tells Zack. “I’ve never actually received one image from the CIA.”

Called “Acres of Walls,” Barron’s ongoing project explores the absurdity of what she calls a “knee-jerk lack of transparency” by recreating the Melzac Collection from fragments of description found in a book about the CIA and from a single photograph of a hallway at the Langley headquarters taken by Taryn Simon. In her paintings, Barron tries to be as accurate as she can to the source. The recreated paintings are interspersed with documentation of her interactions with the CIA, including FOIA denials and her appeals.

“Acres of Walls” is currently on view at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum as part of an exhibition called “Chasing Justice” that features installations by several artists that confront issues of institutional secrecy and government surveillance. “Amid current political debates over hi-tech surveillance, from the NSA to iPhone videos of police actions, this exhibition explores issues of government surveillance and power—both historically and today,” curator Renny Pritikin says in a statement

“Chasing Justice” is on display until February 21, 2016.

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