Michael (Michelle) West, the ‘inner eye’ of the artist, who rejected Arshile Gorky

One wonderful summer day in 2017, I visited the ‘Masterpiece’ exhibition. Since 2010, the ‘Masterpiece’ has been held in the gardens of the Royal Hospital in London, where many of the world’s best art masterpieces are brought and displayed in a huge tent, which is usually raised for a week right next to the hospital, which was designed by the famous 18th-century architect Christopher Wren, one of the best buildings of English classical architecture.

It’s one of my favourite places to visit in London. As an artist and as a devotee of old and new arts, I always feel very happy here.

The enormous tent is an imitation of a brick building. I hurried into the tent, eager to see GOOD art that usually encompasses 6,000 years of art history.

I went through the security checkpoint, gave my bag to the security guard for inspection and entered the premises. Every time I come to this exhibition, I have the exact feeling of a swimmer plunging into the cooling waters of the sea on a hot summer day. I felt almost the same and immersed myself into the ‘sea’ of art.

Various auction houses, galleries and collectors from England, Europe and the world brought the best they had to sell or just to show.

And so, I began to walk through the corridors of the spacious halls, approaching the stands and exhibits placed on the right and left. From stone statues found during excavations in Mesopotamia to Damian Hirst’s ‘cloned’ colourful circles, everything under one giant roof was extremely pleasant to look at, compare, dream, think about and enjoy.

Suddenly, I noticed several large canvases in the distance. I am a huge fan of abstract expressionism. And what I saw was new: black, green, cream, white abstraction with enameled shine – wild and powerful brushstrokes that attracted me with their magnetic force.

I immediately approached.

‘Rachel Smith,’ introduced herself, a blond-haired, middle-aged woman. She had a stout body, and a friendly smile, ‘and this is my father, we work together in New York’, she continued. 

Rachel Smith noticed that I was looking with fascination at the abstract compositions.

‘Michael West. Don’t think it’s a man. Her real name was Michelle Corinne West. Arshile Gorky proposed her for six times. Being Gorky’s friend and to some extent his disciple, she did not want to spend her future life as an artist in Gorky’s shadow.’

‘Pity,’ I thought, ‘perhaps Gorky’s fate would have been different if he had married this woman and not Agnes Magruder.’ Gorky committed suicide when his wife and two daughters left him at the most difficult moment of his life when he had cancer and his painting hand was disabled due to a car accident.

However, I said aloud.

‘Our Arshile Gorky?’

She looked at me surprised and asked.

‘Are you Armenian?’

I smiled. 

‘We also sell Gorky’s drawing, let me show it to you.’

Photo courtesy of Michael West estate archive

Gorky’s drawings cannot be mastered in one second, it takes a while. When I saw which Gorky drawing she was talking about, I went back to Michael West’s works, which I was seeing for the first time.

Since that moment, a certain degree of fascination started in me towards Michael West’s art.

Rachel Smith spoke briefly about her unknown and lost paintings.

‘Michael West… changed her name because of Arshile Gorky. She called herself Mikayel, then changed into Michael, the American way.’

‘Where was this artist until now, why her works have never been seen in the art market’, I asked.

‘We are one of the first to display her pieces.’

Michelle Corinne West was born in 1908 in Chicago. She attended the Cincinnati Art Academy. In 1932 she moved to New York where she met Arshile Gorky. A friendship, or rather, a romantic relationship, started between them. They visited museums together, discussed art and philosophy for hours, and compiled their aesthetic theories. It was Gorky who suggested to change Michelle’s name, ‘a bourgeois name of a suitor,’ he said. And she called herself Michael, hoping that her paintings would find a place in the male-dominated abstract art scenery of wartime and postwar New York. 

Gorky and Michael West’s friendship lasted for many years during the 1930s. Obviously, this was more than a friendship. They were soulmates and perhaps, lovers. 

She said ‘no’ to him not because she did not love Gorky, but because she was afraid that her art would be suppressed and swallowed by the power and values of Arshile Gorky’s style. Gorky, as an artist, could destroy her, she thought. However, it was Gorky who opened her eyes and changed her views. Some art historians say that Gorky’s influence is huge on Michael West’s life and work.

Arshile Gorky founded American Abstract Expressionism and had many followers, including Pollock, Miró, Motherwell, and de Kooning. Gorky’s suicide at the age of 45 paved the way for the fame of his followers.

Let’s return to Michael West. She was a beauty, judging from the photographs and memoirs left by contemporaries. Her family was not particularly interested in art, and she first enrolled at the Cincinnati Conservatory, followed by a brief marriage, after which she came to New York and began studying with the abstractionist Hans Hoffman. Hoffmann, who was German, had become New York’s most famous modern art teacher.

Photo courtesy of Hollis Taggart

Hoffman taught Michael the technique of using her ‘inner eye’ to feel things abstractly and to express the abstract from the depths of the soul. This course lasted only for six months. Michael declared, ‘This is not a course, this is a cult.’ Jackson Pollock’s wife, artist Lee Krasner, also studied with Hoffman. Hoffmann was particularly dismissive of women artists. It is known what he said about a successful painting by Lee Krasner. ‘This painting is so good that you wouldn’t say it was painted by a woman.’

And despite the barrier of male abstractionists, there were two generations of about three dozen female abstract expressionists in America in the post-war years and the 60-ies, such as Helen Frankenthaler, Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Joan Mitchell.

Gorky together with Michael West spent long hours in museums, especially at New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they copied the drawings of old masters. This led to the fact that Michael mastered drawing skills and she perfected the talent of transforming a drawing into a painting.

Long hours of conversation about aesthetics with Arshile Gorky and reading a great deal of literature, especially European existentialists, gave Michael West an intellectual depth which expressed itself in her essays and poems. She has written 52 poems which are as abstract as her paintings. She was fascinated by mysticism and always tried to enter through the surface and see the depth of the world. She considered the universe to be a mystery.

West was a curious and profound person. She saw what ordinary eyes could not see. As one contemporary art critic said, ‘she was able to express the inner currents of things and phenomena on her canvases.’

West’s second marriage lasted longer, from 1948 to 1960. Her husband was Francis Lee, an avant-garde photographer and filmmaker. One year after the marriage, the first and only child, Lionel Sardofontana Lee, was born.

Among her rare exhibitions was the first solo exhibition in Rochester, New York in 1935, after her death. The Pollock-Krasner House held an exhibition in 1996 and called it ‘Michael West the Painter and the Poet’, as well as several other minor exhibitions during her lifetime at less-known galleries in New York.

Have you ever seen an artist who is not at all interested in becoming famous and selling or exhibiting paintings? Well… I have seen a few in my life. After a generation or two, such artists are lost, their names are forgotten, and the canvases get dusty in basements or attics. Michael West was like that. She died unknown and in poverty.

I can’t say whether the last years of this person’s life were sad or ordinary. She died in 1991 in her Manhattan apartment, where all her work and archive were stored.

In the case of Michael West, fortunately, her name was revived, because a miracle happened. A person, whose name was Stuart Friedman, bought the entire contents of West’s apartment—the paintings, the archive, the materials—for only $5,000, then sold it to Hollis Taggart Gallery, one of New York’s famous art galleries, which now has exclusive rights to represent West’s legacy.

Michael West achieved her goal. Her paintings do not resemble the works of Arshile Gorky or anyone else. However, she lived an abandoned and lonely life. Nevertheless, her art is full of mysticism and abstractions.