She Was Part of the Postwar Avant-Garde. She Studied Under a Legend. She Even Adopted a Male Name. But Her Art Was Forgotten—Until Now
Now Abstract Expressionist Michael West is poised for a major rediscovery.
At this year’s Armory Show, New York’s Hollis Taggart gallery is making a compelling case for artist Michael West (1908–1991), showing her works alongside those by four of her celebrated peers: Arshile Gorky, Hans Hoffman, Richard Pousette-Dart, and Franze Kline.
“This is about her and her circle,” Hollis Taggart told Artnet News. “We wanted to show her in the context of those artists so that people can have a broader sense of her work and her influences.”
The artist, born Corinne Michelle West, might have been forgotten entirely save for a chance encounter in a hospital thrift shop in Westchester County. It was there, in 1989, that Stuart and Roberta Friedman encountered one of her works, completely unaware of her bonafides as a pioneering first generation Abstract Expressionist.
The couple bought it anyway, unwittingly setting themselves on the path of becoming the custodians of West’s legacy. It took the Friedmans a couple of years to figure out who West was. By the time they found her phone number in the Yellow Pages, she had already died, with neither a will nor heirs. Her estate, the Friedmans soon learned, was being auctioned by the city.
The couple were not major art collectors, but they took the plunge, purchasing some 110 paintings on canvas, 500 works on paper, and various photographs, letters, exhibition announcements, and other ephemera.
“I think they spent something like a few thousand dollars,” Taggart said. The couple stored the archive in their Westchester garage for over 25 years. Taggart acquired the estate in 2019.
These days, works that sold for just $2,500 to $10,000 ten years ago are now selling for $50,000 to $100,000. Works on paper are priced from $6,500 to $ 28,000, and paintings are going for between $40,000 and $125,000, on the strength of the artists’ new auction record. In 2019, the $81,250 sale of Shadows of “Forgotten Ancestors” (1967) smashed the previous top price, from 2009, of $27,500, according to the Artnet Price Database.
A native of Ohio, West moved to New York in the 1930s, where she enrolled at the Art Students League and studied under Hans Hofmann, the legendary teacher. Changing her name to Michael as a way to gain traction in the male-dominated art world was the idea of Arshile Gorky. (The two were close friends, but she turned down his marriage proposal.) Yet despite finding some success, West died in obscurity.
“We’re bringing her back into the light and resurrecting her legacy,” Taggart said. Still, the dealer says, not all her work is being released all at once.
“We are holding back some of the most rare works, especially from the ’50s—there are very few and we’d like to have those placed in museums,” he said, noting institutional interest from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. “She’s not in that many museums—but she’s going to be.”
See more works by the artist and installation shots from the Armory Show booth below.
The Armory Show is on view at Piers 90 and 94 on 12th Avenue between West 50th and 54th Streets, New York, March 6–10, 2019.
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