Extraordinarily independent for her time and obsessively driven, Corinne (later Michael) West was one of the most single minded and forceful artists of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. Her paintings, poetry, and her relationships with the many of the important figures in the New York School of Abstract Expressionism exerted a lasting impact on the movement. In the face of an undeniable bias against women painters, West remained determined to paint and continued to paint in spite of the blatant disregard of her work by critics and art dealers. West was a member of Hans Hofmann’s first class at the Art Students League. Hoffman taught West to capture the spiritual side of abstraction. Her relationship with Ashile Gorky opened her eyes to the European Surrealists, and his emphasis on the linear approach to abstraction would further impact West’s work.
Michael West was an artist of unbridled spirit and talent. A painter and a poet, she lived her life devoted to the belief of an inner, mystical truth of the human spirit. Her first formal study began in 1927 at the Cincinnati Art Academy following an interest in music. In 1930 she joined a theatre group and married Randolph Nelson who was one of the actors. By 1932 she returned to painting and enrolled in classes taught by Hans Hofmann at the Art Students League. Hofmann was exactly what West need in a teacher as he combined his knowledge of cubism and other modern techniques with his own belief of an inner mystical reality. West’s true awakening came when she was introduced to Arshile Gorky. She and Gorky became intimately and romantically involved for the next decade. Gorky influence, support and encouragement profoundly determined the direction of her career.
In 1934, she divorced her first husband and went to live with her parents in Rochester, NY. She continued to paint and exhibit while carrying on the affair with Gorky. Probably at Gorky’s urging, she adopted the nom de brosse of Mikael (changed in 1941 to Michael). This effort to obscure her sex can be compared to Grace Hartigan who used the name George (as in George Sand) and Lenore Krasner who adopted the more androgynous Lee.
In 1941, Gorky married Agnes Magruder, ending his affair with West who, in 1946, returned to New York. She immediately immersed herself in the excitement of the times making two important new friends, the composer Edgard Varese and the painter Richard Pousette-Dart. West referred to Pousette-Dart as the “White Mystic” which was the title of a poem dedicated to him. She became intimately involved with Pousette-Dart but married the avant-garde filmmaker Francis Lee. His deep roots in the artistic community enabled West an entre in meeting such figures as Jackson Pollack, Peggy Guggenheim and Clement Greenberg. The year West married, Gorky committed suicide.
West’s own work exploded at this time and her paintings developed a certain power, energy and emotional depth. She was included in the Stable Gallery annual of 1953 and had her first solo exhibition in 1957 at the Uptown Gallery. West became interested in Zen Buddist calligraphy creating a startling series of works of deeply brushed abstractions derived from examples of Japanese Zen masters. This extraordinary woman certainly walked down the road less traveled and was true to her art. She is in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Estate of the Artist
Michael West: Paintings from the Forties to the Eighties, 5 June-25 September, 2010, Art Resource Group, Newport Beach, CA; illustrated in catalogue, p. 40