Bold Marks: The Drawings of Michael West
ld rks The Drawings of Michael West May 4–27, 2022 Essay by Jillian Russo
Hollis Taggart 521 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor New York, NY 10001
Fig. 1. West with her painting Creation, c. 1948 and two untitled drawings, c. 1948, photographer unknown. The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives
Bold Marks: The Drawings of Michael West Jillian Russo
A STRIKING 1940S PHOTOGRAPH OF MICHAEL (CORINNE) WEST in her studio conveys the primacy of drawing within her artistic practice. Seated in front of one of her bold, calligraphic canvases, which is casually stacked against the wall, West wears a tailored suit and holds a cigarette in her left hand (fig. 1). An early drawing, featuring an interplay of Cubist and biomorphic forms, hangs prominently on the wall behind her, directly in line with her face. An eye-shape in the lower right corner is mirrored by West’s eyes, which gaze dreamily at something out of the frame. Her right hand grazes a sketch pad in her lap containing a nearly complete composition featuring her characteristic angular and explosive lines. This is not an action shot of the artist at work but a posed portrait in which West takes part in constructing her identity as a woman artist at mid-century and places her drawing front and center. Although her name remains less well-known than her contemporaries, West has a firm place among her first-generation Abstraction Expressionist counterparts. Born in 1908, the same year as Lee Krasner, she developed close friendships with artists Arshile Gorky and Richard Pousette-Dart and honed a gestural approach to painting that was both physically energetic and emotionally charged. At the same time, West was very much her own woman. Over the course of a career that spanned the 1930s through the 1980s, she absorbed and integrated eclectic and international influences to formulate a style that was both conceptually rigorous and spontaneously expressive. Among her established sources are the works of fellow Abstract Expressionists such as Hans Hofmann, Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline as well as Art Informel, Chinese painting, and Zen Buddhism.1 West’s notebooks and drawings, which constitute some of her most intimate and metaphysical expressions, suggest numerous additional influences, among them the drawings of Hedda Sterne, Joan Mitchell, and David Smith as well as non-objective painting and contemporary film.
The following considers several of the themes and techniques West explored on paper. These include a series of self-portraits, studies of calligraphic line and Cubist structure, and experimental compositions in pastel and spray paint. West’s works on paper reveal the formulation of her distinctive approach to abstraction. The numerous notebooks West filled with sketches, poetry, aesthetic theory, and commentary on exhibitions, film, theater, and daily events illustrate that she used drawing alongside writing as an essential tool to continuously record her ideas. Fig. 2. Elaine de Kooning, Self Portrait, 1946. Oil and charcoal on canvas, 23 3/4 × 19 3/4 in. The Metropolitan The power of drawing as a media was impressed Museum of Art, New York, George A. Hearn Fund, 1994.411 upon her early in her career when she visited Gorky’s studio. She recalled in a notebook entry: “When I was 22 years old, I was first introduced to Gorky’s pen + ink drawings—‘Nighttime, Enigma, and Nostalgia’—these drawings lining the walls of his huge Union Square studio—were to me very impressive.”2 In another entry she noted: “Beginners in art should copy and redraw masterpieces if they would understand the metaphysics of creation. Even then, their best bet is to draw— straight from reality-or nature—what they think.”3 While Gorky’s drawings had a formative influence on West, her use of a combined diary and sketchbook as a chronicle had closer contemporary parallels in the artistic practices of Pousette-Dart, whom she knew well, and conceptual artist Lee Lozano, who she didn’t. West’s notebooks provide insights into her approach to drawing and in some cases contain completed compositions. The notebooks frequently feature quickly-sketched self-portraits, a subject she further explored in numerous charcoal drawings throughout her career but rarely appeared in her paintings. Among these drawings are Untitled, 1958 (pl. II), Anxious Object, 1964–66 (pl. VII), Untitled, 1975 (pl. X), and several untitled and undated compositions. The self-portraits reveal West’s engagement with the formulation of her image at time when male bravado largely defined the art scene. Many women artists of the era, notably Elaine de Kooning, Sterne, and Lozano, utilized self-portraiture, often in intimate, expressive drawings, to explore and define identity. West described her portraits, or “heads” as “subjective automatism.”4
In an untitled portrait from the 1970s (pl. XII), West presents herself in the act of studying her own likeness. She sits in her studio, a vase of flowers in the background, with her sketchpad propped on her lap. Leaning forward to consider her face in the mirror, the artist confronts a mask-like reflection, which West rendered economically with a few small marks that define her mouth, nose, and eyes. The composition evokes de Kooning’s, Self Portrait, 1946 (fig. 2), which also depicts the artist seated in the studio with an open sketchpad balanced on her knee. In contrast to the overlay of Cubist lines that Fig. 3. Lee Lozano, No title, 1959. Graphite on paper, 16 3/4 × 13 3/4 in. The Estate of Lee Lozano dominate West’s drawing, creating a sense of psychological tension, de Kooning powerfully employed realism to define herself and her working space. She rendered elements of the studio with loving precision: an elegant glass jar with a stopper, a Native American textile, a shelf with a plant in a clay pot. These delicate items contrast with the fierce seriousness and determination of the artist’s gaze, which is directed at the viewer. De Kooning developed the painting through a series of pen and ink drawings created throughout 1946. As Ellen Landau has noted, “Elaine claimed at one point to have spent two years using only herself as a model.”5 Regardless of whether West had studied de Kooning’s painting specifically, many women painters were independently working along the same lines in their use of selfportraiture. As art historian Whitney Chadwick has noted, throughout history: “The self-portrait has offered women artists an opportunity to explore a complex and unstable visual territory in which their subjectivity and lived experience as women intersects with the visual language which has historically constructed ‘woman’ as object and other.”6 A similar use of agitated and assertive line appears in West’s charcoal self-portrait Untitled, 1958 (pl. II), and Lozano’s graphite self-portrait on paper No title, 1959, (fig. 3). In these works, West and Lozano make their prominent, captivating eyes the focal points. Despite Lozano’s and West’s very different artistic trajectories, Tamar Garb’s observation that “it was only through drawing ‘like a man’ that Lozano felt able to escape the stifling mediocrity of the milieu in which women were routinely confined” is applicable to West as well.7
West preferred to work in isolation, but frequently attended exhibitions and was very observant of what other artists were doing. In 1975, a reference in her notebooks to Sterne’s portraits likely refers to an exhibition at Lee Ault & Company, which featured Sterne’s depictions of art world luminaries, such as her portraits of Elaine de Kooning from 1953 and Joan Mitchell, 1955 (fig. 4). In Sterne’s portrait of Mitchell, she renders the artist’s hair as a soft halo of unruly curls. In West’s Untitled, 1975 (pl. X) rather than a halo, she presents a swirling vortex of circular marks that almost obscure her face. The imagery is Fig. 4. Hedda Sterne, Joan Mitchell, 1955 evocative of the frenetic nature of West’s creative Pencil on paper, 29 × 33 in. Hedda Sterne Foundation thoughts as well as the turbulence and precariousness of her life. The routine stresses of managing her studio combined with financial problems, which were always on the brink of causing an eviction from her apartment, constantly impinged on West’s process. In a 1973 notebook entry she despaired: “I received my 30th disposed notice—How do you live this way? How do you paint in such an atmosphere?”8 None of these issues, nor the stroke she suffered and recovered from in 1976, derailed her artistic production. West used drawing as the primary medium for her portraits as well as for studies of Cubist structure and calligraphic line, two essential components of her style. As her career progressed, geometric, dynamic, and tight strokes in drawings such as Untitled [Double-Sided], 1951 (pl. I), Viet Poème, 1964 (pl. VI), and Untitled, c. 1970s (pl. XI) were accompanied by bold, fluid, broader brushstrokes in enamel, in paintings on paper such as Untitled, c. 1970 (pl. VIII), and Untitled [Double-Sided], c. 1970s (pl. IX). In the 1960s and ’70s, as West created a new series of predominantly black-and-white paintings that she entitled Totems, her calligraphic marks reflected the influences of Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Robert Motherwell. Despite these stylistic developments, West’s aesthetic theories remained firmly rooted in Cubism and shaped by Hofmann’s teachings and the ideas of philosopher Henri Bergson.9 For West, Cubism was a vehicle to convey emotional expression and psychological meaning. In April 1969, after viewing Luis Buñuel’s film Belle du Jour, she noted, “The relationship of the paintings to the action,
i. untitled [double-sided], 1951 graphite on paper, 11 3/4 × 8 7/8 in (29.8 × 22.5 cm) initialed and dated lower right: “m.w. / 1951”
Fig. 5. Joan Mitchell, Untitled, c. 1964. Charcoal and crayon on paper, 24 1/8 × 18 3/8 in. Collection Joan Mitchell Foundation
Fig. 6. David Smith, DS 1958, 1958. Spray and Stenciled enamel on paper, 17 1/2 × 11 1/2 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Candida and Rebecca Smith, 1994, 1994.399
classic characters in alienation, classic analytic cubism.” In the film’s final scene, the Analytic Cubist paintings hanging prominently in the background were “all related to the emotions both surreal, erotic and split or torn apart.”10 The majority of West’s works on paper were executed in black and white, but she occasionally used the medium to experiment in color, working in pastel and briefly in spray paint. Untitled, c. 1960s (pl. IV) is truly exceptional for West’s joyful interplay of exuberant light blue, rose, lemon, and sage hues with only a handful of structuring black lines. The zig-zag lines of Composition, c. 1960s (pl. III) and Untitled, c. 1963 (pl. V) invite comparison to Joan Mitchell’s charcoal and crayon on paper drawing, Untitled, c. 1964 (fig. 5). West was aware of Mitchell’s painting during this period. She remarked of Michell’s 1965 exhibition at Stable gallery: “simply great—loved it.”11 Another entry in West’s notebooks in 1963 mentions David Smith’s drawings, almost certainly a reference to David Smith: A Decade of Drawings, which was on view at the Balin-Traube Gallery in May and June of that year.12 The exhibition likely included examples of Smith’s unconventional preparatory drawings in which he sprayed enamel paint in various colors over cutout cardboard shapes to create ghostly silhouettes of totemic sculptural forms. Smith’s spray drawings, such as DS 1958, 1958 (fig. 6), relate to West’s Totem paintings as well as to a series of spray paint and charcoal drawings West created in 1985 (pls. XIII, XIV, and XV). In these rare, innovative compositions, which also evoke the graffiti painting of the era, West layers almost sculptural arrangements of charcoal lines over fine mists of orange spray paint. The veil of diffused color mingles with charcoal dust to create a sense of depth defined by an interplay between line and space.
West’s drawings, in combination with her notes on art, provide an intimate record of her explorations of subjectivity and her voracious engagement with post-war art and culture. In the later part of her career, her memo books document that she was observing almost everything: the films of Jean-Luc Goddard, martial artist Bruce Lee, and Michelangelo Antonioni, the minimalist oil and pencil paintings of Agnes Martin, Karl Appel’s portraits, the Museum of Modern Art’s 1965 The Responsive Eye exhibition of optical painting, not to mention the violence in Vietnam and the political turbulence of the 1960s. While West spent many years working in virtual obscurity, the ideas she put to paper testify to her continuous incorporation of contemporary influences, which revitalized and expanded her theories of abstraction.
JILLIAN RUSSO is a Brooklyn-based curator and art historian. She received her PhD in American art from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her areas of interest span post-war to contemporary art with a focus on unrecognized artists.
NOTES 1. On West’s influences see Ellen G. Landau, Space Poetry: The Action Paintings of Michael West (New York: Hollis Taggart, 2019) and Ellen G. Landau, Epilogue: Michael West’s Monochrome Climax (New York: Hollis Taggart, 2021). 2. Michael West, “The Direction of Artists,” undated notebook entry. Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives (hereafter MCW Estate Archives). 3. West, “Line and Space,” notebook entry, June 1966, MCW Estate Archives. 4. West, “Notes on Art,” notebook entry, 1978–1979, MCW Estate Archives. 5. Ellen G. Landau, “Biographies and Bodies: Self and Other in Portraits by Elaine and Bill de Kooning,” in Women of Abstract Expressionism, edited by Joan Marter (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 35.
6. Whitney Chadwick, “How Do I Look?” in Mirror Mirror: Self-Portraits by Women Artists, edited by Liz Rideal (New York: Watson Guptil, 2002), 21. 7. Tamar Garb, “Dirty Drawings,” in Lee Lozano Drawings 1958–1964, edited by Barry Rosen and Jaap van Liere (New York: Karma, 2021), 60. 8. West, untitled notebook entry, 1973, MCW Estate Archives. 9. Landau, Space Poetry, 18. 10. West, “Notes,” April 1969, MCW Estate Archives. 11. West, “Notes,” April 1965, MCW Estate Archives. 12. West, “Notes on Art,” June 1964, MCW Estate Archives.
ii. untitled, 1958 charcoal on paper, 12 ½ × 9 ½ in (31.8 × 24.1 cm) signed and dated lower left on mat board: “michael west 58”
iii. composition, c. 1960s oil pastel on paper, 8 ¼ × 11 in (21 × 27.9 cm) signed and titled lower left: “michael west / composition”
iv. untitled, c. 1960s charcoal and pastel on paper, 113/4 × 9 in (29.8 × 22.9 cm)
v. untitled, c. 1963 oil pastel on paper, 11 × 8 ½ in (27.9 × 21.6 cm)
vi. viet poème, 1964 charcoal on paper, 19 × 12 ⅝ in (48.3 × 32.1 cm) signed and dated lower left on matboard: “michael west – 1964” titled lower right matboard: “’viet poème’”
vii. anxious object, 1964–66 charcoal on paper, 22 ½ × 19 ¼ in (57.1 × 48.9 cm) signed lower left: “michael west / 1964” signed, dated, and titled verso: “michael west 1965–66 / anxious object”
viii. untitled, c. 1970 enamel on oak tag, 27 7/8 × 22 in (70.8 × 55.9 cm)
ix. untitled [double-sided], c. 1970s enamel, oil, and collage on oak tag (recto), tempera on oak tag (verso) 28 × 22 ⅛ in (71.1 × 56.2 cm)
x. untitled, 1975 charcoal on paper, 24 × 19 in (61 × 48.3 cm) signed and dated upper right: “michael west—1975”
xi. untitled, c. 1970s charcoal on oak tag, 17 × 14 in (43.2 × 35.6 cm) signed and inscribed upper right: “mich west / year?”
xii. untitled, c. 1970s charcoal on oak tag, 17 × 14 in (43.2 × 35.6 cm)
xiii. untitled, 1985 charcoal and spray paint on paper, 13 3/4 × 11 in (34.9 × 27.9 cm) dated and signed upper right: “1985 / mich west”
xiv. untitled, 1985 charcoal and spray paint on paper, 13 3/4 × 11 in (34.9 × 27.9 cm)
xv. untitled, 1985 charcoal and spray paint on paper, 13 3/4 × 11 in (34.9 × 27.9 cm)
Michael West BORN IN 1908 AS CORINNE WEST, she spent most of her formative years in Ohio, where she attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before enrolling at the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1925. Allured by the promise of a big city, West relocated to New York in 1932, continuing her art education the following year at the Art Students League. A member of Hans Hofmann’s first class at the League, West credits her instructor as a lasting influence on her art. Hofmann’s emphasis on the “inner eye”—the ability to apprehend the essence of things—guided the artist in her enduring spiritual approach to abstraction. Another prominent figure in her life was the artist Arshile Gorky, with whom she developed an intimate, romantic relationship. West and Gorky spent countless hours visiting local museums, in particular the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he introduced the younger artist to sources that would prove important to her practice, including European Surrealism. West avidly read the work of Surrealist writers such as André Breton and Isidore Ducasse and drew on their celebration of the unconscious operations of the mind in her art. In the mid-1930s, West, like her contemporaries Lee Krasner and George (Grace) Hartigan, adopted a masculine name to obfuscate her gender. Perhaps encouraged by Gorky’s name change, she initially chose the Russian-sounding Mikael but later Anglicized the spelling. Fiercely independent and driven, West sought respect based on the merit of her work, free from the bias of gender. Following the dissolution of her marriage to her first husband Randolph Nelson in 1935, West moved to Rochester, New York, where she had her first solo show at the Rochester Art Club. In 1946, West moved back to Manhattan and became active in the thriving postwar artistic culture of New York City. She married in 1948 the avant-garde filmmaker and photographer Francis Lee and gave birth to her only child, Lionel Sardofontana Lee, the following year. As a frequent host to a number of Surrealist exiles in New York, Lee befriended artists such as Joan Miró and Robert Motherwell, as well as influential critics like Harold Rosenberg. Possibly as a result of such soirees, West made the acquaintance of fellow artists Jackson Pollock and Richard Pousette-Dart, with whom she shared an emphasis on the painterly process as well as the affirmation of a spiritual essence within the universal language of abstraction. Like Pousette-Dart, eight years her junior, West sought to convey “‘the Door to a Spiritual World’ through the ‘creative fire’ of art.”1 Her works from this period reveal pictographic grids and loosely
abstracted forms with vague references to the outside world; often working directly from the tube, these paintings exhibit exquisitely wrought surfaces, built up with thick impasto and worked with a palette knife to create what Pousette-Dart referred to as “a material awareness of spirit.”2 Inspired by philosopher Henri Bergson’s belief in the interconnected nature of all living things, West developed an aesthetic philosophy she termed “new mysticism in painting.” In a 1946 essay, she described her negotiation of the surface world of appearances and the immutable core essences of being: “The outer world changes as our thoughts change although our thought is usually ahead or in advance of the world viewed materially. To disintegrate visual unity. . . to break up and change outer appearance is necessary if the individual can penetrate the nature of our mystic universe.”3 West’s move to New York also brought increased opportunities for exhibiting her work. She showed at the Rose Fried Gallery in 1948 and at the Stable Gallery in 1953 alongside Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. In the late 1950s, West received a solo exhibition at the Uptown Gallery in New York and also at the Domino Gallery in Washington, D.C. Her one-person show at the Uptown Gallery received praise for its energy and vitality, drawing comparisons to Pollock’s work. In 1976 West suffered a stroke, although this did not prevent her from continuing painting; instead, she seemed to appreciate the release from the pressures of exhibiting it afforded her. In 1981, she expressed her commitment to her art: “No more shows— I just want to paint in peace—As this drive to paint forces me on.”4 Five years after her death in 1991, the Pollock-Krasner House Foundation mounted an acclaimed exhibition of the artist’s work, entitled Michael West: Painter-Poet. Still, while her work has been recognized since the retrospective, the significance of West’s career and place at the forefront of the Abstract Expressionism movement has been largely overlooked.
NOTES 1. Quoted in Michael West: Painter-Poet (East Hampton, NY: Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, 1996), 9. 2. Statement by Richard Pousette-Dart in Seven Paintings (New York: Willard Gallery, 1945).
3. Michael West, “Notes on Art—The New Mysticism in Painting,” notebook entry, c. 1946, Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives. 4. Michael West, “Notes on Art,” notebook entry, 1981, Michael (Corinne) West Estate Archives.
This catalogue has been published on the occasion of the exhibition “Bold Marks: The Drawings of Michael West” organized by Hollis Taggart, New York, and presented from May 4 to May 27, 2022. Publication Copyright © 2022 Hollis Taggart All artwork by Michael (Corinne) West © 2022 The Michael (Corinne) West Estate Essay “Bold Marks: The Drawing of Michael West” © Jillian Russo All rights reserved. Reproduction of contents prohibited. ISBN: 978-1-7378463-4-5 Hollis Taggart 521 West 26th Street 1st Floor New York, NY 10001 Tel 212 628 4000 Fax 212 570 5786 www.hollistaggart.com Catalogue production: Kara Spellman Copyediting: Jessie Sentivan Design: McCall Associates, New York Printing: Point B Solutions, Minneapolis, MN Front and back covers: Untitled, 1985, pl. XIII (detail) Photography Color plates by Joshua Nefsky, New York Reproduction Credits © Elaine de Kooning Trust; Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY (fig. 2); Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth © The Estate of Lee Lozano (fig. 3); © Estate of Joan Mitchell (fig. 5); © The Estate of David Smith / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY (fig. 6); © The Hedda Sterne Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY (fig. 4) Edition of 500