The CIA and Abstract Expressionism - a mini story

CIA Headquarters, Langley, 1955. A warm, damp Autumn evening; leaves rush and whisper, shaking off their rain drops as the twilight slowly fades yet lingers long enough to kiss the last puddles of water a gentle good night.

On the fourth floor we see a stark light burning out incandescently from a solitary window, opened slightly to let in the cooling Virginia air. The whole building below in almost complete darkness save the foyer and janitor’s cupboard; its occupants have long since left for home or the few bars that welcome the emotionally troubled or down at heel with equal benevolence.

Inside this lit room sit 3 men around a modest table; a polished walnut affair with a pleasing solidity yet fine slender legs. Scattered out over the table top are an array of photographs, black and white, images of what to our eyes now would look like familiar abstract paintings, the kind of thing pastiched in a thousand high schools during an afternoon Art class.

Only this is no art class, and these men do not look like teachers… for one thing a holster was never standard classroom issue, even in the most challenging of schools… not yet at least!  No these men have never frequented a staff room or classroom since they left twelfth grade. They exude a steely efficiency, high cheekbones and naval haircuts, the cut of fella who’d look good advertising the great outdoors, even if the only thing he’d do out there was to take out a moose with his .45.

In their shirt sleeves they sit, with ties loosened after a long day at the office - and this day had been longer than most….

“Ok Duke, run it by me again”, says Head of Operations Tom Braden, loosely flicking at the pile of images with a tired acceptance . “Tell me again about Operation Longleash…”

Duke sighed once more and after a swig from his coffee cup, looked Braden in the eye. “First up, we’ve got plenty of pie to serve out. Sandy has made a positive contact with Mr R who sits on the board at the museum in NYC. He’s monied enough okay, but not that he’d start throwing it about. He’s on board and will act as the front man - nobody will think anything if a guy like that starts up a big foundation. Remember, philanthropy is the American way. 

“And this foundation Duke ? remind us of the remit? “

“Well like I said before, we promote Uncle Sam’s up and coming artists and send their work around the world. Show them the American Way - freedom of expression, the voice of the individual - it all signifies a free society fellas….” (all the men chuckle at this…) 

“And when you say up and coming - you mean these guys…..?” Tom picks up a wad of photos and drops them like playing cards, in the way a person would, who has just lost to a straight flush when they had four of a kind.  “I mean c’mon, look at this stuff - who’s going to take this lot seriously - my five year old can knock better than that out with a box of crayons and scrap paper.” 

Suddenly the third man George pipes up “My aunt Hyacinth does a bit of painting ya know, every Thursday down at the Y - they run a class for ladies - she’s pretty darn good too. Every year we get a painting for Christmas - She gave us Niagara Falls last year - you wanna see it - she really captured the water. That’s proper Art in my book, not these crazy pinkos. 

“Listen George..” says Duke, “you have to put your taste to one side here. Some of our researchers have come back with some pretty authoritative feedback. There’s a guy called Clement Greenberg who is raving about all this stuff. 

“Greenberg?” says George- “He’s that clever, commie critic isn’t he? You ever think for one minute he could be a double agent? “

A few worried glances are exchanged as Tom Braden takes another swig of his coffee, kicks back in his chair and ponders this for a moment….”No way, let’s get back to the details.  Keep going Duke…”

“It’s all about being modern these days”, continues Duke. “Have you seen what the Ruskies are painting? I mean farmers with Lenin in the sky - you gotta admit that’s pretty ugly - the beard an all.”

“At least you can see it is a beard” interrupts George…”and a sky… I mean, look at this guy - What’s his name “Pollock? - Isn’t that some kinda fish? and he paints like a monkey with a milkshake;  and this one,  Newman - I mean its just a big stripe, and this Rothko guy, don’t get me started…he just colours in. (apparently,  his dad was one of them union agitators too).”

I’ve been checking these guys out fellas,  there’s women too. Krasner, Mitchell… You know when you look into them - there all degenerates. I’ve heard that Cedar Bar where they meet is a real Roman orgy- drinking and all sorts. The landlord and his wife give ‘em tabs as long as my arm and no-one leans on them to pay up. I’ve been asking around - They're real low lifers and we’re paying their bar bills! They actually get cash from the government to fool around like this. Like I said, They're all commies… low life, agitator commies…I don’t like this Tom, I don’t like it one bit…

Tom looks pensive but Duke smiles wryly at George, “That’s what sweet about all this Agent Bush - we’re using their own guns against them… It’s genius. Don’t you see? Listen haven’t you read the papers? heard the news? We need to front up to these Ruskies, we can’t be seen to be provincial inward looking naval gazers…there’s even talk that they’re going to put a dog into space sometime soon..”

George looks up suddenly. “A what! I’ve heard it all now … and what’s Fido gonna do up there? Check out the moon and piss on it! I’ll tell ya what, I’d lay five to get one that that mutt could paint better than these jokers too.” 

Tom interjects.  “Listen, get a grip, this is big. We need to win the battle of hearts and minds. Speaking of hearts and minds…Duke, are you positive Mr R at the Museum is comfortable with all this ?  

“Sure”, says Duke,  “He feels especially patriotic, as I said… - probably cos it ain’t his dough. 

“Well”, says Tom, “ I’m glad it's not my dough that’s all I’ve got to say…..

They all laugh and Duke leans to put on the radio - “ I wanna check out the football game.” As he turns the dial, the sounds of a syncopated rhythm coming from a double bass and snare drum are joined by the haunting notes of a trumpet and soft piano. “ What the hell is that noise?” … “That’s called ‘Cool Jazz’ George, I think it's a guy called Miles Davis……. “

The men share frowns and listen some more. The music jumps and swings and a melody starts to swell. The frowns loosen like their ties. Looking down the table leg, Tom Braden sees Duke tap along to the music and the sounds drift out through the window and across the now dark grass to meet the rabbits who cavort and jump like the leaves that swirl around their ears.

Emyr Williams:  

December 2016