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  • Living EnergyThe Abstract Expressionist Paintings of Michael West
  • Kristine Somerville

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Michael West, 1930. Photo: John Boris. Courtesy of Stuart Friedman

[End Page 73]

A work of art is born of the artist in a mysterious and secret way.

—Kandinsky

After her divorce from theater actor Randolph Nelson, to whom she’d been married a year, Corinne “Michael” West moved from Ohio to New York. She soon found an apartment in the Village and began studying painting at the Art Students League. Her teacher, Hans Hoffmann, was the founder of action painting. His theory of “push and pull” in an image to create form and texture appealed to her, as did his visceral technique of vigorous brushstrokes across the canvas. He demanded his students’ total allegiance and in his classroom created a cultlike atmosphere. When another class member, Lorenzo Santillo, suggested that she meet his friend, Armenian painter Arshile Gorky, she at first refused, suspecting that he would be too much like their teacher.

On a cold March evening in 1935, however, West went with Santillo to a party at Gorky’s large studio on Union Square. She was uncomfortable; she had only been in New York a short time and worried that she smacked of provincialism. However, as she strolled down the hallway, looking at Gorky’s powerful pen-and-ink drawings, she was taken by his work. When she finally met Gorky, imposingly tall and shabbily dressed, she was smitten. She’d promised herself she’d never become a muse to the maestro, and now that threat had materialized; she sensed immediately that he would become one of her generation’s greatest painters. Gorky was equally charmed by West and her beauty. She used the name Mikael during this period, but Gorky insisted on calling her Corinne, liking the formal quality of it.

Their relationship quickly developed around their shared passion for painting. Since childhood, Corinne had been a devotee of the arts. As a young girl she’d studied piano and attended both the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and Cincinnati Art Academy, where she became a skillful performer of Rachmaninoff. Also interested in acting, she was cast by the Cincinnati Actors Theater as Vivian in The Passing of the Third Floor Back. That was where she met and married Nelson, the male lead in the play. In their short year of marriage, she learned that her career was expected to take a backseat to being a wife.

In New York, through Gorky, West gained entrée into the growing bohemian scene of the ’30s, and though she was unused to being around what [End Page 74]


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Poet in a Brown Hat, 1941, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Miriam L. Smith, Art Resource Group

[End Page 75]


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Michael West, c. 1945. Photo: Richard Pousette-Dart. Courtesy of Stuart Friedman

she called a “group of intellectuals and intelligentsia” she soon felt that she belonged. She and Gorky went to museums and galleries together and talked of their shared belief that painting was a mystical experience. They felt a similar connection to the spiritual and the poetic, and as artists they sought to direct this energy—this “scared feeling for life”—into their work. They saw the canvas as a battleground on which they were to “fight out their lives.”

“I think our excitement about art was rather unnatural. This tremendous love of art was where our identities collided,” West later recalled. Gorky thought he’d found the perfect mate and asked her to marry him. But despite their shared passions and philosophies, she felt as if Gorky understood her very little, and she declined. He asked her several more times, and she refused, confessing that her work would always come first. He promised that would not change, but his needs were already more than she could handle. Though she agonized over breaking up with him, she felt that he “needed a rich sophisticated person who would give him 2 children and help manage his career.” [End Page 76]


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Red Composition, 1967...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 73-81
Launched on MUSE
2015-06-24
Open Access
No
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