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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.