Exhibition Review: The Artist was a Woman
Michael West: The Artist was a Woman
By Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Fifties. According to Gore Vidal, the worst decade in the history of the world—unless, of course, you happened to be white, male, heterosexual and an artist. For the American artist with the appropriate characteristics, it was the best of times. The Second World War left the United States in a position of dominance, militarily, politically, and, thanks to decades of conservatism in Paris, artistically in the lead. The art scene and the art market migrated from Paris to New York; and New York, as Serge Guilbaut stated, “stole the idea of modern art.” Operating out of the Cedar Bar in Greenwich Village, the new American artist had to shake off the “feminine” qualities of being an artist. Sensitivity and intuition were replaced by a strident masculinity, reflecting the military posturing of the Cold War era. Women who were artists were not welcomed in this male dominated arena where tough, ugly, alcoholic men like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline belched and bellowed like bull elephants. Harold Rosenberg wrote of “art as act” and imagined the (male) artist as a modern gladiator bringing himself into being through the act of creation. Females could create only through motherhood. Women were girlfriends, mistresses, wives, groupies, or all three. Some were allowed to have the privilege of being patrons and collectors, like Peggy Guggenheim and Betty Parsons. This is the world of Michael West, one of the best artists of Abstract Expressionism. Present at the beginning of the New York School, she was relegated to the footnotes and left behind by art history, all because she was a “she.” To be forgotten was the fate of female artists from the Fifties, the worst of times for women.
Although best known as the reputed girlfriend of Arshile Gorky, whose legend overshadowed her, West was, in fact, one of the stronger women of the New York School. Unlike Lee Krasner, who reacted to Pollock, she never allowed Gorky to impact upon her art, unlike Elaine de Kooning, she never made the mistake of marrying a colleague. As a result, her art remained true to her own vision and she continued to develop and evolve even after her untimely stroke in 1976. She bravely continued to paint until her death in 1991. The way in which she continued to make art, undeterred by the chauvinism and bigotry against women, undismayed by the way in which critics and dealers ignored women artists, and un-swayed from her course by her marriage to combat photographer, Francis Lee, resembles the career of Helen Frankenthaler. Frankenthaler married into the New York School when she became the wife of Robert Motherwell; but her art continued to be sponsored by the smitten art critic, Clement Greenberg. Thanks to him, Frankenthaler would be knitted into the critical fabric of modernism. With little support from critics and dealers, like most women, West would be left out of the modernist meta narrative. Finally, in the Twenty-first century, the artists who were the historical actors in the art world are being, slowly but surely, replaced in the history of art.
It is often overlooked in the circles of art history, that art dealers are on the front lines of primary research, and it is to Miriam Smith and Nora Desruisseaux of the Art Resource Group that much credit is due in bringing Michael West to the attention of the art world. Located in Irvine, the Group deals with the secondary market in art, handling estates and bringing to light artists who need to be remembered. A striking full page in the summer issue of Art in America announced their full scale show of Michael West’s work. West was born in 1908, a year after Les Demoiselles d’Avignon changed the course of modern art. Her original name was “Corrine” and it was under this name that she began a career as an actor. Photographs taken of her in the style of Edward Steichen show a beautiful woman, her face glowing in the key light. Later photographs reveal that she never lost that sophisticated beauty and sense of elegant style, which must have beguiled Arshile Gorky, the Armenian immigrant painter. As though the event was the closing act of the theater chapter of her life, there was a brief marriage to an actor, quickly over. An unusually ambitious and determined woman for the period, West simply started all over again.
A talented pianist and gifted poet, she had many possibilities before her, 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. But she was one of the first students of the new European refugee, Hans Hofmann, at the Art Students League in New York. In 1932, West was joined by artist, 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. Undoubtedly Hofmann would have preferred to teach men, but as a newcomer to America, he needed the students. Hofmann was an autocrat, equaled perhaps only by Joseph Albers who was to arrive later. Both were known for bringing European ideas to America and for teaching a combination of Cubism and German Expressionism. Albers was fascinated with color and mixed media, bringing the idea of collage and assemblage to Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Hofmann remained a total painter, combining the structure of Analytic Cubism with the color play and expressive brushwork of Der Blaue Reiter. The impact the conservative Cubism of the Twenties shows clearly in his work, reflecting his belatedness to the pre-war avant-garde. But his combination of avant-garde styles was part of the prevailing ethos of the art market in Europe where the collectors wanted the “look of” the radical but nothing actually innovative.
Being of the post-avant-garde generation made Hofmann the ideal candidate to transport European studio talk and German art theory to the New York artists. Clement Greenberg, a fledgling writer, learned the aesthetic discourse at the master’s feet and would translate it into his theory of Modernism. Although Hofmann’s students started out together, they would show little loyalty to each other. Krasner, once so promising, would give up her career to support Pollock. Betty Parsons would run a gallery that excluded women. Working under Hofmann’s strong willed dogmas, West quickly caught on to the basic lessons of post-war Cubism, which incorporated the multiple viewpoints of Analytic Cubism with the large colored shapes of collage but replicated everything in paint. The women trained by Hofmann would have been well ahead of their male counterparts, none of whom were his direct students. When Krasner introduced her lover to Hofmann, the older and more experienced artist famously warned Pollock to work from nature, rather than depend upon his personality. Offended, Pollock insisted arrogantly, “I am nature.”
Like Pollock, West rejected Hofmann and left this breeding ground for new American art. Her reasons were different from Pollock. Hofmann was too domineering and his patriarchal ways did not sit well with the independent American women. In 1934, she began studying under the American Modernist, Raphael Soyer, who seems to have left little trace on her mature work. What did leave a mark on her life was an introduction to a man who had reinvented himself as a Russian, Arshile Gorky. Because of his posthumous fame, she would be recast as his “muse,” although at the time she was his equal as an artist. In 1935, she sifted her locale to start her art career outside of New York. To save money, she lived with her parents in Rochester, where she apparently became a bit of a local art star, showing with the Rochester Art Club and lecturing on the current theories of modern art and about “The New American Art.”
This apprenticeship probably served the same purpose as working for the WPA did for other artists—an opportunity to make art and to learn how to be an artist. The sojourn in Rochester would have been an ideal place to develop a career. Here she could get opportunities that would not have come her way in New York, such as a commission to paint fourteen panels for a local production of the Ballet Petrouchka, originally developed by the Ballet Russes for Nijinsky, with music by Igor Stravinsky. Although the ballet was twenty-five years old, in the Thirties, it was still a very modern take on ballet and the fact that the city was supportive of avant-garde theater and hired a modern artist to do the backdrop speaks volumes of the sophistication that could be found in the provinces.
Since their meeting in New York, Gorky was smitten and deluged West with love letters and poems, mostly purloined from the Surrealist poet, Paul Eluard. A telegram he sent her in 1936 was probably the most authentic words he wrote to her: “Dear Corrine, Please come to New York for a few days. Let me know when coming, Arshile.” There are intimations that the separation, bridged by letters, had weakened the relationship, as she later explained, “We planned to marry but changed out minds at least 6 times.” Having learned her trade and craft in the visual arts, in 1938, she returned to New York. Whatever the reasons 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 and 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 This 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, écriture automatique. But Michael West seemed to be influenced by the Surrealists in that she assimilated the ideas and reshaped them for her own use more than the actual techniques, while she also stayed true to her Cubist roots.
For this second period in New York, West ceased to be “Corrine” and became “Michael,” upon the advice of Gorky. Undoubtedly, his suggestion was based upon the very real prejudice against women, who had a long history “passing” as men: Georges Sand and George Eliot, for example. West went beyond signing her work as a man; and, like Lee Krasner, she used her new name in all aspects of her life. Becoming “Michael” could not obliterate her beauty and men in the art world probably had a hard time forgetting her gender, but West, like all her generation was consumed with the art problem of the day. How could Cubism become abstract? Hofmann remained figurative for years until he made the shift to painting squares of strong vibrating colors, alternatively roughly and smoothly painted. It should be noted, in comparison to the later works by West, that Hofmann tended to be a flat painter. In his earlier works, he wove a thick and active web of broken brushstrokes, which built up his post-Cubist compositions, featuring favorite cubist still life subjects. Later, he further flattened the picture plane and developed his famous “push-pull” effect, which solved the problem of how to keep abstract painting from going dead. The juxtaposed colors vibrated against one another, cool colors receding and warm colors advancing, activating the surface.
The decisive move away from her Cubist figuration can be traced from West’s A Girl with a Guitar of 1944 to Harlequin of 1946 to Transfiguration of 1948. The jump to abstraction took two years, but it was not a complete transformation until the Sixties. Like de Kooning, West returned to figuration in the 1950s. What is clear is that she understood the basic lesson of Cubism well: the entire surface had to be activated or what would later be called the “all-over” effect. With Cubism, the problem was to equalize the figure and ground, to reduce all areas of the canvas to a pattern of shattered shapes. Without the armature of the object, the question for abstraction became how or perhaps why to fill the canvas. The solution, which we also see in Pollock of the same period, was to cover the surface with dense biomorphic marks, built up into rhythms of painterly movement—a visual horror vacui. Transfiguration of 1948 demonstrates the same denseness and thickness that would characterize her compromise between geometric Cubism and biomorphic Surrealism. But West was still in the process of becoming. The last years of the decade would be critical for the development of American painting as the artists had to take the final step that would free them from dependence upon European Modernism.
Because we have become so familiar with the history of the American avant-garde in New York, it is important to remember that the scene among the artists was not as clear-cut as it would seem with historical hindsight. In his book How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, Serge Guilbaut recreated the confusion and uncertainty during the late Forties. By the end of the war, representational art disappeared from the galleries, replaced by abstract art. But abstraction was the only certainty. There were pressing questions of the relationship between the European tradition of Modernism and the newly emerged American art. American artists needed and wanted a complete break and sought to create an “American” art. Michael West had been on the forefront of the pioneers who moved forward to create abstract art in an American idiom. However, as a definition of Abstract Expressionism, American avant-garde, American painting emerged, it would be specifically constructed to eliminate certain elements and players, including and especially women.
Politics was removed from art. This removal was part of a rejection of previous art, such as Social Realism and a reaction against wartime fascist propaganda. It was clear to American observers that the French post-war entanglement in politics was harmful to the recovery of their art. In America, there was a conservative reaction against “elitism” and anything that seemed “un-American” such as European based art. Added to the fact that “modern art” became suspect in many quarters was the chilling fear of the coming Cold War and communism. American insularity and hostility to new ideas was on display against the important show of 1946, “Advancing American Art,” a show that traveled to Europe, organized by J. LeRoy Davidson and sponsored by the State Department. Attacked as being “Red Art” made by “left wing artists,” the “travesty of art” was designed to cause “ill will” towards America which would be made to look “ridiculous” by “half-baked lazy people,” who made that “so-called modern art.” An image of Hiroshima by Ben Shahn was singled out for criticism. For any artist who might have qualms about atomic warfare, it would be wise to forego comment, as America apparently quickly became desensitized and brutalized during the war to dropping “the bomb.’ Fortune Magazine’s chilling 1946 account of the dropping of the atomic bombing of Bikini atoll shows either ignorance or fear,
….there is no reason why only one bomb should be dropped at one time. Some bombs might be detonated mainly for blast effects, others underwater to contaminate the whole harbor area. Some military men even foresee the release of clouds of radioactivity without bombs to act as an invisible gas.
Not every observer was so sanguine. By the end of the Forties, West married again to a combat photographer, Francis Lee. It is unclear what impact this marriage to a man who knew war so well had on her opposition to the Cold War, but her horror over what the war had wrought was shared by many artists in New York. This was a generation that had survived the hopelessness of the Depression and the daily fear of defeat by ruthless enemies, only to be faced—after victory, after the peace—with what proved to be a state of permanent war. In an age of total abstraction, when political art or art with any overt content was unwelcomed, many artists had to hide their horror at the continual testing of atomic weapons. Written after American had dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese to win the war and after the American government began systematically testing nuclear weapons, one of Michael West’s poems related the plight of the artist in such a dark time:
Rebel March 1948
Black Hands Crowd the Angry Dark
With Tales of Fire Coughing –
Money — genius –
unlimited or even limiter
What a ludicrous price —praying –
Dismantled — disarmed –
the artist in society —suffocates –
During the Sixties, Adolph Gottlieb did a series of paintings, called Burst, an oblique reference to the threat of immanent annihilation. West had also “blasted” her early work, Harlequin, with a dull silver paint, the color of a bomb casing. The spill of paint obliterated the earlier surface, stunning it into submission. This old work was transformed by her Cold War protest, the silver color acting as a metaphor of the Frankenstein effects of technology. Other works of this period show the cultural dis-ease with the Cold War. West’s Nihilism (1949) and Dagger of Light (1951) have titles which predate those of Gottlieb, suggesting a veiled statement, implied but not stated, except in the use of industrial enamel paint splayed across the canvas.
After those splashes of violence, the art of West began to include landscapes and still lives on white ground. Her 1950s return to figuration would have been regarded as tantamount to treason in the New York art world after the hard fought battle for abstraction. De Kooning was roundly attacked for his Woman series of 1952. West joined the Dutch artist in being one of the few who dared to challenge the new orthodoxy. The flurry of brushstrokes in Flowers of 1952 and Road to the Sea of 1955 are an entirely new form of mark making for West. The works of the Forties retain a sense of the biomorphic that is, in and of itself, a signature of the era. The straightened marks, applied individually in a slashing movement prefigured her later mature work and were characteristic of the Fifties. What remains a constant for this return of figuration were the colors of the early abstractions. West was a colorist, a very inventive and subtle one, creating cool in-between tones mixed to unusual hues of thinned out reds and metallic greens. Green is a very difficult color for artists to work with, but West not only mastered the color but also invented a new version of her own: dense and acid with a sense of transparency, pale and dark at the same time. A Coke bottle green. This green appears in Space Poetry of 1956 and Study of 1962. As West wrote,
The future of art lies in color—but I/ am personally interested in an/ effect of dark and light/ The color explains the space/ The more complicated the space/ the simplier the color/ (this sounds wrong—but it is right for me)
The work of West during the decade when the New York School and Abstract Expressionism became the dominant movement in the international art world demonstrates the current aesthetic zeitgeist, on view at The Stable Gallery in 1953. In an homage to the famous Ninth Street Show of 1951, Eleanor Ward invited the best and the brightest in New York, including all the (remaining) artists of Abstract Expressionism, including both de Koonings, Motherwell, some future Pop precursors, Rivers and Rauschenberg, and all the notable women of the scene, Frankenthaler, Bourgeois, Mitchell. West was in this famous exhibition, which was prefaced with an interesting and telling introduction by Clement Greenberg. Greenberg, seeking to make his mark as an art critic, echoed the macho rhetoric of Rosenberg, writing of the “indispensible” “rivalry” among artists. The ironic juxtaposition of the presence of many women in an important exhibition and the masculine rhetoric of the short essay boded ill for the future careers of artists who were women. By 1952, the new artist, according to Harold Rosenberg, was an “action painter,” modeled on a militaristic fantasy, echoing American triumphalism.
At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce…
Art as action rests on the enormous assumption that the artist accepts as real only that which he is in the process of creating.
So by the time of The Stable Gallery show, it was already too late for women. Like politics, they were in the process of being written out of art history. The new artist had to be masculinized and Americanized. Stung by accusations of being “left,” the vanguard art world put forward a group of men who were too old or too unfit to fight in the Second World War and who had to be turned into cowboys and fighters. Most importantly the artist had to be depoliticized as well, a feat that was accomplished by elevating “him” to the status of individual, merged with “life” but not with current events. The male artist had to be male in order to symbolize the true subject of modern art: “man.” The independent male individual was alienated—had to be alienated—in order to create transcendent art.
Constructed during an era when men were supposedly suffering from a “crisis in masculinity,” the new American artist became an extreme figure, modeled on Jackson Pollock, a troubled alcoholic. Above all, this male artist must have “freedom.” In contrast, women in the post-war society were shaped for domesticity, were devoted to her husband and family, and were delighted by housework. Without “freedom,” they were unable to open their own bank accounts. Their individuality disappeared under their husband’s names. They were not individuals, but were defined in terms of their family roles. As “wives” and “mothers,” they could not alienated, nor could they ever be independent. This new post-war woman certainly did not even remotely resemble the newly fabricated American artist.
It is necessary to “re-place” Michael West in the history of art, because like all the women of her time, with the possible exception of Frankenthaler, she was written out of the New York School. By Sixties, she had moved back to abstract art, bringing together all she had learned over the past thirty years. Having experimented with avant-garde abstraction and figuration, in the Fifties, she made the choice to stay with her generation and did not attempt to follow figuration into Neo-Dada. She was a woman, and due to her gender, she has been mistakenly located historically as a “Second Generation” Abstract Expressionist artist, but this designation was because the art of women were assumed to be derivative of the work of men.
In fact, West was part of the First Generation and her development during the Forties as an abstract artist paralleled and paced with that of Pollock. He, of course, was given credit for what de Kooning called the “breakthrough,” or the breakaway from the dominance of European art. Her path to abstraction, unlike that of Pollock, was not through the automatic writing of Surrealism, but was through Cubism. Her transition would have been more like that of Mondrian or Malevich, in that she retained the cubist structure; but she utilized the expressive brushwork of Hofmann and broke free of the outlined strong Cubist blocks. Unlike Pollock, she never worked on the field painting scale but she solved the problem he presented in his Mural of 1943-4—how to paint large scale with kinetic strokes over a large expanse of canvas. Unable to work on an easel, Pollock threw an unprimed canvas onto the floor in 1947 and flung paint onto its surface, solving his found problem with a solution found three years later.
West apparently learned that she could work in large brushstrokes with a big paintbrush and keep the canvases to a large scale. She maintained the easel painting tradition, like de Kooning, but, when one measures her canvases, one can see that they were sized to fit her body: the size of the brush her hand could hold, the distance her arm could travel from end to end, as she swept across the surface. The canvases were as tall as an average woman’s height, minus a few inches and as wide as her outstretched arms. The term “kinetic” is often applied to Pollock’s work, referring to his throw of paint but the term can also be applied to the way in which West must have interacted with her surfaces and materials. Unlike Franz Kline who painted black against white, creating an intermix of contrasts, which flattened his surface, West laid stroke upon stroke, building up and out. In response to the increased use of the entire body in painting, artists of the Fifties often thought of themselves as performers and many allied themselves with body oriented activities, such as the partnership between Merce Cunningham and Robert Rauschenberg at Black Mountain College.
The idea of a performance or of a kind or proto-body art did not include women at the time, but an examination of the canvases of Michael West immediately demonstrates the sheer physicality of her painterly style. Her strokes of strong paint drew a map of figure on top of ground, applied with the rhythm of the sway of her body. As can be seen in her paintings of the 1960s, she left behind the packed and built up surface of the forties abstraction and became a figure-ground painter, seen as early as 1955 with a simple black Still Life. The use of dripping, small splashes on the canvas, which will become part of her work begins to appear. At times, she would take advantage of the liquidity of the paint and allow the paint to flow down but she never allowed the direction of the flow to dictate the orientation of the painting. In Narkisses of 1966, the canvas has clearly been flipped on its head.
West’s paintings were built up with gestures of strong over-painting, often allowing the ground to show through. The strong vertical slashes of the figurative paintings of the Fifties were carried over into the next decade and used on a large scale as though the brushes and the brush strokes had been greatly enlarged and blown up to fill a larger stage. Her colors became stronger and deeper, blacks, dark reds (Untitled, 1961), slate blues (Moments 1970), with touches of white (Vietnam Summer, 1963), and pale lemon yellow (Gento Niese, 1978) were applied with great and confident freedom. Despite the stroke of 1976, she painted on. Little was allowed to deter West—not the death of Gorky in 1948, not her second divorce in 1960, not an illness which was defiantly followed by the beautiful Save the Tiger of 1980.
Over and over, from decade to decade, Michael West always moved with and was part of the cutting edge of the art world. But just when Michael West hit her stride as an artist, just as she found her own voice, the art scene shifted and abstract art became a historical artifact. Pop Art ascended, followed by Minimal Art, both of which repudiated Abstract Expressionism, and, unfortunately, attention shifted away from abstract painters. We know that she was close to the painter Richard Poussette-Dart, but women received little support in an art world dominated by men and she did not get the exhibition exposure equal to her male colleagues. West simply kept evolving, independent as always.
The question is why did such an interesting artist, so in tune with her artistic time, get left behind and written out of the history books? The answer, as was indicated, is two fold. First, Michael West was a victim of the passing fancies of an art world, increasing driven by an activated art market. New York began to look like Paris before the First World War, becoming home to a dizzying series of “isms.” But there the comparison stops. Before the Great War, the avant-garde movements built one upon the other, but in New York, true to the new martial Cold War fervor, each “ism” ousted the other. The “rivalry” Greenberg wrote of began to infect the art world.
The older Ab Ex artists sparred with each other and the group, never a close one, splintered in the fight for recognition and patronage. Even worse, the New York School was superceded, first, by the upstart Neo-Dada trend, and then, by the Pop artists, who were followed by the Minimalists, who were overcome by the Conceptual artists who eliminated the object. All of the new movements rejected the pompous pretentions of myth and poetry and spirituality that were part of the credo of Abstract Expressionism. Michael West, who was interested in what she called “the new mysticism,” Zen Buddhism, and Henri Bergson’s élan vital, was now in an art world charmed by popular culture and dedicated to literalism. The spontaneous art of personal gesture gave way to artists who hired fabricators and mailed instructions to installers. In this new world, one group was suddenly out and old-fashioned and the new group was in favor. The generation that had fought so hard to break away from the Europeans witnessed the uprising of the young artists, who not only mocked them but also obtained, too easily, the financial rewards they had worked so hard for.
Michael West was left behind by history, but so were Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman. Rothko and Newman were not truly appreciated until the Minimalists during the late Sixties. But regardless of the fact that West produced stunning abstract paintings, such as Mt. Siani Clinic of 1962, she still would have been ignored, unlike her male counterparts, because of the art world gender ideology. The second reason women were left out of art history had to do with old-fashioned gender bias and male prejudices against the female. Harold Bloom, the literary theorist, wrote of the history of literature as a contest, an “agon” between fathers and sons. In A Map of Misreading, Bloom wrote,
A poet, I argue in consequence, is not so much a man speaking to men as a man rebelling against being spoken to by a dead man (the precursor) outrageously more alive than himself.
Artistic rivalry was Oedipal, between men only. Given the succession of movements in the New York art world, with each generation rejecting the other, a male enterprise; women were not and could not be part of the canon. The ideological construct of men defeating men precluded any role for artists who were female. It took decades for new generation of art historians to recognize that it was not “history” that had been written but a male-based belief system—a belief that only men could be artists. Many years after her death, Michael West is joining the long line of women who paint in the rewritten art history.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger
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