THE CALLA LILY DIALOGUES

MICHAEL WEST: The Artist was a Woman

Calla Lily ArtArleen Solomon Rotchin1 Comment
Portrait by Jon Boris, 1930

Portrait by Jon Boris, 1930

She was born Corinne Michael West in 1908, an Abstract Expressionist painter whose work had great energy, colour and the same styles that made her contemporaries famous. She was not extremely well-known during her lifetime, in fact she had to use a man’s name to achieve respect in her field.  She painted hundreds of canvases from the 1940’s through the 1980’s and was a friend and colleague to many acclaimed artist from those decades. She had an intimate relationship with artist Arshile Gorky, serving as his muse and probably his lover. She refused his marriage proposals.

While she was working at her Rochester Studio, Gorky couldn’t bear to be without her.  He wrote fascinating, poignant letters to her and he visited her.  He took the train to Rochester to visit her.  They planned to marry but changed their minds 6 times.  There were many letters back and forth.

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Corinne Michael West was a talented pianist and gifted poet, but she chose to become a painter.  Few women would have gambled in a career in the arts during the Depression much less go to New York.

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She was one of the first students at The Art Students League and in 1932 was joined by Lee Krasner, sculptor Louise Nevelson and future gallery owner Betty Parsons, during a period when women were tolerated in an art world devoid of prizes and competition. 

Michael West made reference to The New Art in a 1942 poem of the same title.  This ‘new art’ was later to be more formally known as lyrical cubism and then Abstract Expressionism.  This is a very early reference to America’s new art.  

In 1936 at the Rochester Art Club she had her very first one woman show.  She gave a lecture during the exhibition and discussed Picasso, Cubism and other ‘new art’ tenets.  The audience which was made up of mostly students, were completely enthralled and her drawings completely sold out.

In 1938 she returned to New York.  Whatever the reason for leaving Rochester, West had come back at a good time.  The clock was ticking down on artistic freedom in Europe and in a year, Hitler had overrun the continent.  

What followed was the greatest intellectual and artistic migration in modern history.  Half the greatest minds and talents in Europe arrived in New York, the rest found themselves in Los Angeles.  

The Surrealist artists from Paris arrived and became a major presence in New York sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim and shown at her gallery,

Art of the Century.  For many artists these haughty painters, who refused to speak English, brought with them the key to the next step for abstract art, automatic writing, ecriture automatique.

But Michael was influenced by the Surrealists on that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual technique, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.

She wrote a series of 50 poems in the late 1940’s including the poem 

The New Art in 1942. In 1968 she created a series of poems related to the Vietnam War.  

In 1948 Corinne married filmmaker Francis Lee.  They divorced in 1960. 

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