Michael (Corinne) West, “Green Apple” (1959), oil on canvas, 40 x 87 3/4 inches (all images courtesy of Hollis Taggart, NY, unless otherwise stated)

Throughout her life, Michael West (1908-1991) experimented with semiotics from under the radar. Several works in Space Poetry, on view at Hollis Taggart in Chelsea, detach linguistic and symbolic associations to arrive at uncommon meanings. Spanning four decades, the exhibition shows how the artist operated behind a gendered facade as Abstract Expressionism went commercial. 

Michael West in her studio with “Mystic Energy” (1946), 1947 (photo courtesy of the Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives; photo by Francis Lee)

Born Corinne Michelle West, she assimilated into the male-dominated New York art world by taking a man’s name, much like George (Grace) Hartigan and Lee (Lenore) Kras(s)ner. An outsider early on, West believed that Hans Hofmann’s school — where she briefly studied — promoted cultish formulaity. Critics mostly highlight West for her proximity to famous male artists in gallery and museum exhibitions. And while Arshile Gorky’s romantic interest helped jumpstart her career, West’s own musings on color theory and the cosmos better represent her development as a sort of shapeshifter. 

Working with the concept of “plasticity,” West would often start paintings with something tangible in mind and then land elsewhere. Her early Cubist portraits gave way to expansive Abstract Expressionist paintings throughout the ‘40s, culminating in the multicolored “Blue Figure” (1948). She destroyed and repurposed some of her completed paintings to create textured pieces devoid of genre, such as with “Nihilism” (1949). In this work, West rubs sand over an elaborate drip painting, leaving behind a drab, terrestrial chasm.

Michael (Corinne) West, “Nihilism” (1949), oil, enamel, and sand on canvas, 53 1/8 x 40 1/4 inches

Naming and identification were negotiable for West, who treated painting as a metaphysical study. Thick streaks of black, white, and yellow cascade against a crimson background in “Green Apple” (1959). In “Flowers” (1962-64), she lays photographs of beach scenes and torn gallery flyers onto vaguely floral brushstrokes. Essence was more integral than logic, revealing West’s preoccupation with existentialism. Her oeuvre provides further context on the forgotten women of the postwar era, who rarely adhered to one style.

Michael (Corinne) West, “Untitled [Double-Sided]” (1970-71), enamel on paperboard, 28 x 22 1/8 inches 

Space Poetry: The Action Paintings of Michael Westcontinues at Hollis Taggart (521 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 21, 2019. UPDATE: The exhibition has been extended through January 4, 2020. 

Billie Anania is an editor, critic, and journalist in New York City whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.

One reply on “The Cosmological Musings of Michael West, an American Abstract Expressionist”

  1. It’s interesting that both West and Grace Hartigan began experimenting with mixed media abstraction around the same time. Hartigan’s bitterly ironic and aptly titled “Rough Ain’t It” (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) included sand mixed into the oil paint along with printed matter that served as the title. Aside from the gritty reference to the status of women among the male-dominated Ab-Ex’ers, it’s been suggested that collage and montage are the signature approach of much of the most interesting examples of contemporary art since World War II. And, overlooked until recently, these two women seem to have been far in advance of their peers.

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