“Fear is lack of perspective,” the artist Michael West wrote in August 1946.
West had no such lack. As a prolific painter and poet at the forefront of the Abstract Expressionist movement in mid-20th-century New York, West was filled with perspective. But perhaps one particular aspect of her identity—the fact that she was a woman—seemed to shroud the rest.
It was not a time when women were widely recognized for their art. Born Corinne Michelle West, she changed her name to Michael in 1941, in hopes of finding more professional success, as fellow Ab Ex artists Lee (Lenore) Krasner and George (Grace) Hartigan would also do. But despite this, West’s major contributions to Abstract Expressionism went unacknowledged, her name erased from this celebrated era of modern American art. If West is mentioned at all, it is usually to identify her as the beautiful muse and reputed lover of Arshile Gorky, the famed Armenian-American painter whose artistic accomplishments overshadowed West’s.
A riveting new show at Hollis Taggart gallery in New York hopes to correct this erasure. Space Poetry: The Action Paintings of Michael West (through December 21) presents 22 works by West, tracing her output from the 1940s up to her death in 1991. It is the first major presentation of West’s work since the gallery’s recent acquisition of the artist’s entire estate.
“We felt like she fits the definition of a deserving artist that was lost and forgotten but deserves more attention and more scholarship,” says Hollis Taggart, who opened his eponymous gallery in 1979. “[This show] is our way of bringing her back into the light again.”
Her paintings are visceral, pulling the viewer in closer to witness their totality. Aside from the black-and-white paintings she made later in her career, West’s colors are bold and layered. Texture is paramount, with thick oil paint jumping off the canvas. Looking at the stunning work, you wonder how it’s possible she isn’t better known.
“What this show really demonstrates is that she was a first-generation Abstract Expressionist, right with the core group of Pollock and Rothko and Motherwell,” says Taggart. “She was in the thick of it.”
Corinne Michelle West was born in 1908 in Chicago. She showed interest in the arts at a young age, taking up piano at just five years old. She enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at 17, and a few years later entered the Cincinnati Art Academy. She also pursued acting for a time in her young adulthood.
In 1932, West moved to New York. There she enrolled in art classes with Hans Hofmann, a German-born artist who became the most influential teacher of modern art in the U.S. “He was very much an academic, with his theories of color and ‘push-pull’ and things like that,” says Taggart. West embraced Hofmann’s intellectual approach to art, and his teachings would have a lasting impact on her work. But she also found him oppressive, likened his classes to a “cult,” and left his school after six months for another teacher. West was not alone in her critiques of Hofmann’s manner, especially toward female artists; he is said to have told Lee Krasner, “This is so good, you would never know it was done by a woman.”
Around the same time, West met another man who would come to greatly influence her art and life: Arshile Gorky. An intimate relationship quickly grew between them, and they often discussed art, politics, and philosophy at length. Gorky is said to have proposed to West six times—and six times she turned him down, wishing to preserve her independence and pursue her own career. (Notably, it was Gorky who encouraged her to change her name from Corinne to Michael, saying the former sounded more like a “debutante’s daughter” than a serious painter.)
West continued to work under the name Michael in the 1940s and ’50s, and through the emergence of Minimalism in the ’60s and ’70s. She appeared in group shows alongside other Ab Ex artists, including at Pinacotheca Gallery in 1945 with Mark Rothko and at the prestigious Stable Gallery in 1953 with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Despite positive reactions to her work within the industry, she was never granted a solo show at a major gallery in her lifetime. In fact, the only female Ab Ex artist to see much public recognition was Lee Krasner, who no doubt drew more attention through her association with Jackson Pollock, to whom she was married for a time.
Starting in the ’40s, West began keeping “Notes on Art,” her writings on art theory, spirituality, politics, and other cultural topics. “She was a deep thinker,” says Taggart. “She contemplated the art movements of the day.” A voracious reader, West often wrote in response to the writings of others, such as the French philosopher Jacques Maritain, whose Art and Poetry informed her ideas around art, nature, and mysticism.
In one entry from January 1946, the day of the New York City Victory Parade after World War II, West wrote: “The new peace has brought about a world of opening facts—and a speed which causes change both of matter and a way of doing things—a different system—the world by the artist is suddenly viewed and felt in a new way.”
Her thoughts on art theory and this “new peace” coalesced to form her own worldview, which is reflected in her artwork and played a foundational role in the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Walking through the Hollis Taggart show, West’s paintings feel contemplative, steeped in thought. You get the sense she never really stopped painting, adding to a work until the last minute. The more you look, the more you notice: a swirl of color or texture that catches your eye, such as the sole yellow zig-zag in Green Apple (1959) or glyph-like shapes in Dancing Figure (1962).
Early works from the 1940s reveal the influence of Cubism, as seen in the Picasso-esque Egian Girl (1942). West’s work in the ’50s and ’60s became much more abstract, as she embraced “action painting,” a style, made famous by Jackson Pollock, that is guided by the physicality and spontaneity of paint application. These paintings are bold, impactful, consuming.
In addition to the paintings, the Hollis Taggart show features “a real treasure trove of ephemera,” says Taggart, including a number of documents, poems, sketchbooks, photographs, and letters between West and Gorky that the gallery acquired as part of West’s estate.
Taken as a whole, Space Poetry depicts a sophisticated artist whose influence went both ways. “She wasn’t one who had a big following or students, but she was very active in the time. And it’s great to see her place in the history of early Abstract Expressionism, how she fit in, as one of the very few women artists of that period,” says Taggart.
As the world reckons with overlooked women, shows like this one are a salve, highlighting not only a forgotten artist’s work, but her life’s pursuit of using art to get at some greater truth.
“The greatest painting remains always a limitation—an intellectual residue—of a colossal truth much greater than we can recognize,” West wrote in that 1946 essay. “The artist in his most profound moods—and in philosophy—can give us only as an aspect of creative truth. Such humble thoughts—such humble reasoning—as I am expressing here may seem hopelessly mystic to some—but truth must be explored—and our feelings should expand constantly.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue