Michael West: We Come Alive and Dream

Curated by Jillian Russo, Director of Exhibitions
Viewing room
6 - 23 May 2020

So that in Beauty multiplied We come alive and dream

Michael West: We Come Alive and Dream offers a portrait of the pioneering female Abstract Expressionist painter Michael (Corinne) West. Like her contemporaries Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, West struggled to gain traction in the post-war male-dominated art scene. In addition to creating compositions that are simultaneously highly emotive, personal, and deeply intellectual, West was a prolific writer of poetry and aesthetic theory. This exhibition, which takes its name from the final line of her 1945 poem “The New Art,” explores the relationship between her poems, essays, notes, and her spirited gesture painting.

Beginnings 1908–1940s

Born in 1908 in Chicago, West attended the Cincinnati Art Academy before moving to New York in 1932. While studying at the Art Students League, she was introduced to Arshile Gorky and they began an intense relationship that included visits to museums and discussions of aesthetic theory and lasted throughout the 1930s. Although Gorky proposed several times, West preferred to maintain her independence. In 1948 she married war photographer Francis Lee.


West’s writings of the 1940s responded to the devastation of World War II and the creative potential that followed in what she described as “a world of opening facts—and a speed, which causes change both of matter and the way of doing things—a different system—the world by the artist is suddenly viewed and felt in a new way.” West’s writings reveal her engagement with philosophy, mysticism, and metaphysics, an interest she shared with her friend, painter Richard Pousette-Dart.


In the mid 1950s West created an impressive series of paintings exploring the tension between cubist structure and dynamic gestural marks. West, like the Futurist painters who made crucial contributions to the development of Cubism, was inspired by the philosophies of Henri Bergson. The explosive energy of West’s forms in Continuity of Change (Still Life), as well as the work’s title, relate to Bergson’s concepts of flux, movement, time, and perception.


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The New Art

Michael West, 1942

Sailing to Byzantium no more—that’s over

Now Recalled the infinity of sailing—

So turns the soul around that leaves

The Way—going on Ahead

And stays an anchor on every wave

Which Bubbles a new islande

 Thousands of islands create land

New land—like deeds permeating

Hell–like monuments erected in vacancy

World wars

 To arouse and seduce our ardour

 And make us strong with sensations

So that in Beauty multiplied

 We come alive and dream

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Michael West, Stonington, CT, circa 1955.
Michael West, Stonington, CT, circa 1955.

Line & Space

Michael West, 1966

Line and Space is interesting to the artist

When disassociated from objective reality…

This speculative and analytic approach-shows the

artist up—the better to realize a rediscovered or pure space.


During the 1960s, West produced and reworked canvases that reflected the angst and confusion of America amidst political turmoil. During this period she began to paint on the floor and, like Pollock, moved around the canvas, working on it from all angles. In a 1965 note describing the attributes she felt were “nearer to the heart of painting,” West listed, “objects, line, space- autonomy- sensitive mood-drama-violence.” This amalgam of sentiments and themes is apparent in the frenzied layers that make up the painting Flowers. An emotional palate of black, white, deep greens and reds are layered in anguished impasto strokes that radiate with conflicting themes of anxiety and hope. Objects that reflect an interest in temporality are woven into the surface, including a watch, personal mementos, including a matchbox and postcards, and a flyer from Granite Gallery, where West had a solo exhibition the year prior.


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Poem – to painting

Poem—to painting

Michael West, October 11, 1944

Oh—Blue Cloud in a White sky

And Orange Moon in the Grey Night Mist

Cold Dusk or late night mists

Unfold an Invinciable time of sounds

And thru the heavy air the horns from

Boats proclaim the destiny of Place

And Try and Try again the dear call of Memory

—forgotton pain—endearing present—now lost—

            Now Dead—Now Cold—

 To Rise again as particles of air like

 Separate Stones glittering and free in perfect

 Balance reach that moon first—glowing

 Now pale silver in the mist—now

 A Hard Red Penny etched—

Against the wall—and be transfigured

Back again to what I am—or was

 So Rarely seen and felt—glowing depth

Glowing Moon in the night air

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Michael West, Stonington, CT, circa 1955.
Michael West, Stonington, CT, circa 1955.

The Black and Whites

Michael West, 1975

Are Romantic constructions based on a cubist concept of space—yet have a vitality of their own—centers pull away from triangles, rectangles are open ended, bisecting forms close to them and even the “totem motif” is supported and held up by a base that is smaller than the rest but explodes into swift open-ended form.


West’s diary entries about her series of black and white paintings of the 1970s demonstrate her thorough understanding of the theories of Cubism. Throughout this decade, West also experimented with incorporating vibrant color into her black and white compositions such as the fiery oranges and reds in her painting Generations. In this mature series, she wielded the breakthroughs of many of her male contemporaries including Pollock, Hoffman, Gorky, and Kline to her own creative ends.


Although she had exhibited widely in the 1950s and 60s, including exhibitions at Stable Gallery, Uptown Gallery, and Rose Fried, the paintings of the 1970s were shown only at Womanart Galleries, where they did not receive as much critical attention as they deserved.


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Michael West, 1945

Lacy stars—like Calder’s wire-works

Glittering thru the sky—in geometric relations

Attach themselves to me inside

 Oh—fiery constellations that prove

            All theory again

 This fluttering in the chest is but a twinkling

 Planet—infinite in time and space

Who identifys me here


To stretch out and meet the other

 Stars and form a ring of power

In this Realm of Eternity

 So shines a holy light

In this world by inevitable science

 And is Recognized thru Love

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Michael West with her painting, circa 1958.
Michael West with her painting, circa 1958.

Gorky Notes

Michael West, August 1977

I’ve been asked many times to write something about my painting—about Gorky and my years spent with him—what was he like? Why I continue to paint—and what exactly is the message of my works—what technique means to me. The answers are all so clear—it’s absurd to start writing.


During the late 70s and 1980s, West continued to paint with power, conviction, and a strong sense of connection to her innermost self. As seen in Quagmire the artist often limited her palette in order to bring attention to movement and uncontrollable outside forces, a key theme in her work. She carries through her work an extraordinary sense of tone and color, as the deep magenta mixes in with bold black strokes so the painting appears both flat and three dimensional. Painted after West suffered a stroke in 1976, her work of the 1980s reveals a renewed zest for painting that was possible in the absence of the pressures of exhibiting her art. In 1981, she wrote: “No more shows—I just want to paint in peace—As this drive to paint forces me on.” The canvases of this period exude confidence and energy as she explores her knowledge of the world without restriction.

Archive Notes

Please note the transcribed documents retain West's original wording to preserve the artist's intent. All artwork and writings by Michael (Corinne) West. © 2020 The Michael (Corinne) West Estate.

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    Michael West in her summer rental, Stonington, Connecticut, 1955. Collection of The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.