Corinne Michelle West was born in Chicago, Illinois. She attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music before moving to the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1925. She graduated from the Cincinnati Art Academy in 1930. West - on June 26, 1930, at the Wesley Chapel in Cincinnati - married theatre actor Randolph Nelson (1909-1978).
West moved to New York in 1932. She began to study painting with Hans Hoffman at the Art Student's League of New York and commercial art at the Traphagen School of Fashion. After graduating and leaving the teachings of Hofmann, in 1934, West began studying under Raphael Soyer. She was Arshile Gorky's muse and probably his lover, although she refused to marry him when he proposed several times. They shared a passion for art and visited museums and galleries together.
West's paintings in the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s were Cubist and Neo-Cubist in style. In 1936 she had her first solo exhibition, at the Rochester Art Club; also in 1936, she had begun to go by Mikael to obtain better opportunities, and after Arshile Gorky told her that the name "Corinne" sounded like that of a "debutante's daughter." Gorky's suggestion however, was based on a real prejudice against women in the art world, such as with George Sand and George Elliot. In 1941 she began to use the name Michael, which she used in her regular life as well as her painting. In 1946, after returning to New York from Rochester, she exhibited at the Pinacotheca Gallery alongside Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb. West - on June 30, 1948, in Manhattan - married filmmaker Francis Lee; they divorced in 1960.
West was one of the few female members of the New York Art School movement. In creating her work, West was inspired by the existentialist writer Henri Bergson's theory of 'living energy' and was guided by her instinctive creativity and passion. During the 1950s, she was committed to action painting, as shown in works like Space Poetry (1956). She exhibited in Manhattan's prestigious Stable Gallery in 1953, and had a solo show in 1957 at the Uptown Gallery in New York City. In 1958 she had a one-woman show at the Domino Gallery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
In the 1960s and 1970s, West held three solo exhibitions at the Granite Gallery, Imaginary Art, and Woman Art Gallery, all in New York. Her style in these years became more experimental, with West exploring collage, calligraphy, and staining techniques.
West died in 1991 in New York. Five years after her death, a retrospective of her work was held at the Pollock-Krasner House. The first major West Coast exhibit of her work was held posthumously at Art Resource Group's Newport Beach, California gallery in 2010.
Corrine Michelle West is considered one of the pioneers of Abstract Expressionism, a style commonly associated with Willem de Kooning and the Action Paintings of Jackson Pollock. Inspired by Parisian philosopher Henri Bergson's theory of "living energy" and the new spirituality to come out of post-war American art, West adopted a style that can be described as Neo-Cubist, using heavy painterly brushstrokes to bring movement to the canvas. In an essay from January 1946, she says, "The new peace has brought about a world of opening facts -- and a speed which causes change both of matter and a way of doing things -- a different system -- the world by the artist is sudden viewed and felt in a new way." With Harlequin, West investigated "art as process" and her expressive abstractions became more aggressive action paintings. She painted over Harlequin in the 1950s stating the overpainting was her response to the destruction of the Atomic Bomb and the tensions arising from the Cold War.