Why the Art World Is Rediscovering Female Abstract Expressionist Michael West
Michael West in her apartment, circa 1977. Courtesy of the Collection of The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.
The doorbell to Michael West’s New York City studio was broken, and she didn’t care to fix it. “I just want to paint in peace,” the Abstract Expressionist painter (born Corinne Michelle West) wrote in 1981, a decade before her death as a forgotten artist living alone, on welfare. Even a missed visit from her former teacher Hans Hofmann, a respected painter who had come to check out her latest work, hadn’t convinced her to repair her faulty buzzer.
West could be standoffish—a trait that didn’t help propel her six-decade career during her lifetime, and which might have played a part in her being left out of 20th-century art history. Her large-scale paintings have also been overlooked because she became a footnote in the biography of painter Arshile Gorky, whom she met in 1936 as a young art student. “If it were not for the love letters Gorky wrote to West,” said Ellen Landau, a scholar on Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, “West’s name might have been totally lost to scholars and because of this circumstance, she appeared to be more important as a muse than an artist in her own right.”
Michael (Corinne) West, Blue Figure, 1948. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart, NY.
Michael (Corinne) West, Untitled, circa 1970s. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart, NY.
Now, three decades after her passing, the legacy of this artist who sometimes thwarted access to her work is coming to light. Since New York–based gallery Hollis Taggart took over West’s estate in 2019, she has had a solo exhibition and a dedicated booth at this year’s Armory Show, and is now the subject of the online exhibition “We Come Alive and Dream,” which presents her paintings alongside her poems, essays, and notes.
Her life’s work came very close to being tossed in the trash, though. When West died in 1991 with no will or heirs interested in her estate, New York City took custody of her Upper West Side apartment. It was only by chance that Stuart Friedman, an art photographer who had bought a West painting at a thrift shop a few years earlier, heard about the municipal sale in time and made a modest (and evidently the only) offer to buy her paintings and archive.
Michael West at Granite Galleries, 1963. Courtesy of the Collection of The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.
“Without Stuart Friedman’s discovery of West’s oeuvre by buying the contents of her apartment after her death and recognizing and promoting her place in the Ab-Ex movement,” Landau said, “knowledge of her work would likely have been lost forever.”
Friedman vividly remembers walking into her dusty apartment, not knowing what to expect since he hadn’t found much about West in the years since buying a small 1942 painting by her. “When I got there, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Huge paintings, very dynamic,” he recalled. He soon transferred West’s estate to his garage in nearby Westchester, where it remained until Hollis Taggart bought the entire lot last year. “Most people thought she’d passed away in the 1930s. That’s how hidden she was.”
Installation view of “Space Poetry: The Action Paintings of Michael West” at Hollis Taggart, 2019. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart, NY.
West’s artistic path began in the 1930s, when she moved from Cincinnati to New York and also changed her name to Michael to confuse her gender identity, hoping that she’d be taken more seriously as an artist. She registered at the Art Students League and studied under Hofmann, absorbing his theories about spirituality in art, but left his class after only six months because she felt his following was too cultish.
Some of his teachings stayed with her, even after she transferred to Raphael Soyer’s class. Hofmann believed that all paintings, representational or abstract, should be grounded in observed objects. West worked this way, marking photos of her abstract paintings with the names of the still lifes, interiors, portraits, and landscapes that she used as starting points. “What do I work from,” West wrote in 1977. “Anything around, shadows—objects on table—still life—heads.”
Michael West in her apartment, October 1978. Courtesy of the Collection of The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.
This practice, and the fact that she wrote a volume of notes, poems, and essays on art (unique for a female Abstract Expressionist), were constants—even as her style kept changing.
In the 1930s and ’40s, she painted in a Cubist style, before shifting to active, gestural brushwork. In the 1950s, she started staining unprimed canvases in the style of Helen Frankenthaler and created action paintings with canvases laid on the floor. “She didn’t do fluffy kind of art, ever,” Friedman says.
In some of her midcentury paintings, she covered earlier canvases with explosive bursts of metallic paint that left both images visible. A few before-and-after photographs of these works exist and show, for example, how Harlequin (1946) became Blinding Light (ca. 1948)—a painting that West said was a reflection on the destructive powers of the atomic bomb, since her over-painting destroyed the previous imagery on the canvas.
Michael (Corinne) West, Untitled, n.d. Courtesy of Hollis Taggart, NY.
It was these kinds of paintings that Pollock and Peggy Guggenheim saw when they visited her uptown studio at 1150 Fifth Avenue in the late 1940s (on a day when the doorbell was, apparently, in working order). They later said West painted “life,” but she never got a show at Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery.
West did, nonetheless, have a few gallery shows in her lifetime. She exhibited alongside Mark Rothko and Milton Avery in a 1945 group show at the Pinacotheca Gallery and, a few years later, participated in a 1952 show at the Stable Gallery that included Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, and Franz Kline (a close friend). Her first solo exhibition was in 1957 at the Uptown Gallery, which included 40 oil paintings.
“The fact that she has been a close participant in the genesis of Abstract Expressionism is obvious in the quality of immediacy and presence that she achieves in the knife strokes of her oils,” read an Arts Digest review of her solo show. “Her paintings have the quality of generating energies, as well as a coherent framework—and this is no mean feat.”
West exhibited with bigger-name Abstract Expressionists, but she wasn’t one of the gang. “She never really was a part of the inner sanctum of the Abstract Expressionists, as most women were not,” said Taggart. “Over time, without gallery representation, she sort of faded from the scene because Pop art was taking over.”
Portrait of Michael West. Courtesy of the Collection of The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.
Friedman thinks West’s limited success had a personal component, too. After all, she was the type not to bother fixing her doorbell, not caring, apparently, if she missed a visitor or an opportunity. “There was a big group of artists that knew her. But she still kept out of the limelight,” he said. “She was pretty independent, but you know, you can’t be fully independent and make it in the art world.”
West didn’t choose a gallery or representative to care for her legacy; she just left behind rooms full of canvases and notebooks to speak on her behalf. “Be one of those, thinker as well as doer,” the philosophically inclined West wrote in a 1974 poem. “You will get nothing for it in return / Don’t let that throw you / The greatest artists are unknowns.”