Cynthia Talmadge’s Half Light, an immersive installation of six large pointillist paintings and a hand-dyed carpet presented at Art Basel Miami Beach 2023, imagines a continuous view of the studio of painter Mary Pinchot Meyer across three different points on a timeline: in 1963, the final year of her life; immediately following her 1964 murder (unsolved to this day, and believed by many to have been a C.I.A. assassination); and in a counterfactual 1969 in which Meyer had lived to continue the progression of her life, work, and career.
In 1963, Meyer was an artist working in Georgetown. Her studio was in the carriage house of her brother-in-law (and later the executive editor of the Washington Post), Ben Bradlee. She was in dialogue with Kenneth Noland, Anne Truitt, and other artists described as members of the Washington, D.C. Color School. She was also recently divorced from Cord Meyer, and had survived the 1956 death of one of their three children in a car accident. She was an activist for leftist causes and a fixture on the Georgetown social scene; her many friends occupied prominent positions in art, politics, and the publishing and intelligence communities.
In addition to all of this, she was also having an affair with President John F. Kennedy, and it has been hypothesized that her pacifism and interest in experimental consciousness-raising drugs were shaping his views in the time proceeding his assassination, moving him towards a deescalation of hostilities with the U.S.S.R. and a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. This shift has been cited as a potential motive for Kennedy’s killing by those who believe the U.S. military-industrial apparatus, and specifically the C.I.A., were involved.
Meyer’s ex-husband Cord began as a progressive thinker who advocated for global governance by a version of the U.N. with expanded powers, but by the 1960s was a high-ranking C.I.A. official who is believed by some to have himself been involved in Kennedy’s assassination (supporters of this hypothesis are also fueled by Cord’s awareness of his ex-wife’s affair with Kennedy, potentially providing an additional personal motive for his involvement), as well as in the Watergate break-in ten years later.
In 1964, Mary Meyer was murdered under suspicious circumstances, and it has been plausibly theorized (though never proved) that Meyer was assassinated by the C.I.A., with or without Cord Meyer’s knowledge, to prevent what she might have known about Kennedy and his killing becoming public. Ray Crump, an innocent Black man who had been in the area of the murder was arrested, tried and ultimately acquitted, with unorthodoxies in the legal proceedings lending credence to the possibility that he may have been framed.
James Jesus Angleton, a close friend and colleague of Cord Meyer’s, spent his life enmeshed in what he described as the “wilderness of mirrors,” running counterespionage operations at the C.I.A. He was in possession of detailed information regarding the whereabouts and actions of Lee Harvey Oswald in the time immediately prior to the Kennedy assassination, and was incontrovertibly responsible for obscuring the C.I.A.’s extensive knowledge of Oswald’s activities from the Warren Commission’s investigators. Angleton was apparently caught breaking into Meyer’s studio the day after her death in an effort to recover her diary, which is considered a significant piece of missing evidence by J.F.K. assassination theorists for what it could reveal about Kennedy’s affair with Meyer, their use of psychedelics, and his evolution towards pacifism.
Mary Meyer’s knowledge about these subjects and the potential for her to have gone public is considered the most likely motive for Angleton, Cord Meyer, or others at the C.I.A. to have had in plotting her murder. The diary is variously rumored to have been burned at C.I.A. headquarters by Angleton, to have actually been a sketchbook containing nothing potentially explosive, or to never have existed at all.
Beyond alluding to the murkiness surrounding many details of Mary Meyer’s life and death, Half Light, the title of Talmadge’s installation, is taken from the title of one of Meyer’s few publicly documented works, and the palette of the entire installation is also drawn from the eponymous painting: a lavender, green, blue, and brown tondo completed in the year prior to Meyer’s death. Talmadge leverages optical color mixing to use only the four colors found in Half Light (1964) to create a set of complex monochromes, maintaining some of the mood of Meyer’s original painting.
Seen clockwise from left, the six paintings that comprise Talmadge’s installation are as follows:
- Ex-Yale (1964) takes place in 1964 and depicts the results of a hasty C.I.A. cleanup of Meyer’s studio after her murder, including chintz curtains that have been clamped shut, listening devices that have been removed from the walls, and personal photos of people in Meyer’s life with their faces cut out. The title of the work refers to many of the men central to Meyer’s life and death having been part of the school’s ‘old boys’ network, which was a pipeline to C.I.A. careers for the ruling-class WASPs of Meyer’s social milieu.
- Mary Pinchot imagines a fictional 1969 in which she, now working under her maiden name, has advanced the scope and ambition of her work, participated in an exhibition at the Corcoran, and had a second solo show. The new works Talmadge imagines for Pinchot are characterized by a somewhat looser, more process-derived approach, and imagine the influence of her real-life friendship with Timothy Leary and interest in consciousness-expanding hallucinogenic drugs, as well as her activism against the U.S. war in Vietnam.
- Waves of Darkness depicts the studio in 1963 and is titled after a short story written by Meyer’s ex-husband Cord. The studio contains Half Light (1964) as a work in progress, sketches and color studies, scraps of paper with potential titles for paintings, an excerpt from Meyer’s poem “Requiem,” an invitation to her first solo show, and a poster for an upcoming group exhibition.
- Angleton’s Orchid returns us to 1964 and the imagined results of the C.I.A.’s cleanup of Meyer’s studio after her death. Ben Bradlee claims to have caught James Jesus Angleton breaking into Meyer's studio the day after her death in search of her diary. Angleton was fascinated by orchids, which he viewed as surviving through deception: since they contain no food, they use mimicry to attract the insects they rely on to carry their pollen. Talmadge describes the framed botanical orchid print seen in this painting as Angleton’s “signature.”
- Young Men Who Care is titled after a Glamour Magazine article from the late 1940s that happened to profile both Mary Meyer’s then-husband, Cord, and her future lover, Kennedy. The work revisits 1963 and depicts objects from Meyer’s work, social, and family life, including another tondo painting in progress, a calendar from the Georgetown private school where she sent her children, the back of a framed Kenneth Noland painting gifted by the artist and half-draped with a silk scarf, and a Manila envelope from the White House.
- Daisy Chain revisits the imaginary 1969 in which Meyer survived. The title refers to the award Meyer was given as the most beautiful and popular member of her 1942 graduating class at Vassar, as well as, more darkly, to the incestuous nature of the interrelated art, business, publishing, and political elites whose intermingling shaped Meyer’s life, loves, and untimely death. More evidence of anti-war activism, her involvement with psychedelic culture, and the development of her work are seen here, including a slice of a new large-scale painting with a complex composition. Another set of the chintz curtains seen in Ex-Yale, open here to reveal the view onto the Georgetown garden from the Bradlee’s carriage house. Cord Meyer’s 1947 book Peace or Anarchy sits on the windowsill, a remnant from a happy moment in their marriage that perhaps might indicate Mary Meyer’s reconciliation with her complex past.
While Talmadge’s visions of Meyer’s studio draw on her own extensive research (leaning on Meyer biographer and family friend Peter Janney’s impassioned but often subjective Mary’s Mosaic and Nina Burleigh’s A Very Private Woman, as well as Ben Bradlee’s autobiography A Good Life), it should be clear that the installation in no way purports to advance a historically accurate or even cohesive theory of Meyer’s killing. It is, in the phrase preferred by publishers’ disclaimers, “a work of imagination,” and like other recent major works of Talmadge’s, Half Light might best be characterized as historical fiction, or even historical fantasy. The blending of fictional and non-fictional elements of the narrative – as well as those aspects that seem destined to remain permanently contested – leaves space for the work to examine both the romantic and paranoid varieties of delusion that characterize our understanding of this period of history. Talmadge’s 1964 may seem to offer a direct indictment of Angleton and the C.I.A., but aspects of her 1969 and 1963 undercut our desire for a definitive position. It’s as if we’re seeing not three different moments on a single timeline, but three moments that offer points of convergence for innumerable possibilities. Embracing the kaleidoscopically multiplying narratives, Talmadge refuses to reduce Meyer to her cause of death, or to relegate her to a supporting role in a drama about the killing of one powerful man at the hands of others. Instead, she tries to imagine herself into the half-lit interiority of someone who may be grasped by most as a metaphor, a clue, or a casualty of the collision of public and private life, but was – in fact – a significant and under-recognized American abstract painter.