By: John Dorfman
Michael Corinne West, a nearly forgotten pioneer of AbEx, gets some attention.
This month, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, which originated at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last fall, comes to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. With a broad selection of works, some of them never before shown, and a series of installations that demonstrate Gorky’s work process, the exhibition illuminates the development of the artist’s unique style. In the few years before his suicide in 1948 at the age of 44, Gorky created a powerful body of work that bridged the gap between Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Elsewhere in the L.A. area, in Newport Beach, Calif., from June 5–September 25 at the gallery Art Resource Group, another early Abstract Expressionist will be getting a retrospective—an artist far less famous than Gorky but one linked to him by bonds both personal and artistic. Corinne West was a young woman from Chicago studying art in New York with Hans Hofmann and Raphael Soyer when she met Gorky in 1932 or early ’33. West later recalled, “It was in Gorky that I found the Great American Painter.” Immediately they began an intense relationship. Gorky proposed marriage to her six times, but the friendship remained basically platonic; their deepest connection was in art.
West was beautiful, and Gorky painted her portrait (now lost), but she had no desire to be a muse. West was intent on developing herself as a painter. Time spent on the town with Gorky was better than any class on Eighth Street. At Romany Marie’s café in Greenwich Village, West, Gorky and Stuart Davis would sit up half the night talking about great artists of the past, Bronzino, Memling, Goya, Tintoretto. Gorky would illustrate his ideas with pen drawings on napkins, done with the utmost gravity.
As West became more accomplished as a painter, she was frustrated by the lack of respect for women artists. She started signing her work “Michael West” and eventually used “Michael” in social life, as well. This adoption of a male moniker was not unheard of at the time: Lee (Lenore) Krasner did it, and Grace Hartigan went by George Hartigan early in her career. At the time West knew Gorky, and for some years thereafter, she worked in a basically Cubist style. In the late ’40s she moved into Abstract Expressionism, and in the ’50s she was doing action painting—both generally thought of as quintessentially male modes. By the ’70s West was painting very large-scale canvases with bold brushwork, and even a stroke in 1976 couldn’t keep her from working, though she stopped showing around that time. She died in 1991, in her studio.
“With Gorky coming to L.A., we thought it would be a wonderful extension and adjunct to have this show,” says Art Resource’s Miriam Smith. The show includes work from all periods of West’s career, and is accompanied by an in-depth scholarly catalogue. “Her paintings are filled with energy and power,” says Smith. “It’s amazing, because she was such a delicate, refined, small woman. How did she paint such massive, strong paintings? She was very determined.”