The secrecy with which the CIA pursued Abstract Expressionism was not only integral to successfully fooling the Soviet Union but also to keeping any associated artists in the dark. In [former CIA operative Donald] Jameson’s words, “[M]ost of [the Abstract Expressionists] were people who had very little respect for the government in particular and certainly none for the CIA.” Multiple artists self-identified as anarchists, particularly Barnett Newman, who was so taken by anarchism that he would later write the foreword to the 1968 reprint of Russian author Peter Kropotkin’s 1899 Memoirs of a Revolutionist, describing the anarcho-communist’s influence upon his life and work. In other words: tell Clyfford Still or Helen Frankenthaler that you wanted to use their paintings to forward a government agenda, and the answer would most likely have been a firm no.

The CIA’s answer to these problems was something known as the long-leash policy. This solution kept CIA operatives at a remove of two or three degrees from the artists and art exhibitions – sometimes even more – so that they could not be linked to any furtive governmental bankrolling. In order to fulfill this need, they elicited the participation of arts foundations, artists groups, and, most crucially, art museums, requesting their assistance in organizing special exhibitions, events, and collections. Such activity was funneled through a new arts agency created by the CIA named the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which was developed in 1950 and not revealed as a CIA project until 1966. It would always appear, then, that a museum or arts corporation was presenting and promoting Abstract Expressionism, never the government, no way! And no one was the wiser, not even the artists themselves. Especially not the artists themselves.

Jennifer DasalArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History