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