Possibilities: an occasional review

23 mar 2021

In 1939, the European continent was again plunged into destruction and suffering. While some artists had already abandoned it, leaving for the other side of the Atlantic because of the Nazi Party coming to power in Germany, many others did so from that year onwards. The destination chosen for them to restart their artistic activities was above all New York. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the “big apple” had shown itself to be attentive to the movements of the European avant-garde and receptive to their creations. An example of this attitude were the exhibitions of works by Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi and Picabia, among others, held by the photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his friend, also a photographer and painter, Edward J. Steichen, at the “291” gallery, and the Armory Show, a major exhibition held in 1913, where works by Amadeo de Sousa Cardoso were exhibited.

On the other hand, the 1940s were crucial years for the affirmation of American art, to which the Federal Art Project (1935-1943) contributed greatly. A programme drawn up by the Roosevelt administration in the context of the Great Depression and the New Deal, to guarantee and support the survival of American artists in those times of crisis. Amongst the many who took part in the Federal Art Project actions were the photographers Berenice Abbott, Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, and the painters Arshile Gorky, Mark Tobey, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock. Meanwhile, in 1942, the gallery Art of this Century appeared in New York, founded by Peggy Guggenheim. During its few years of activity – it closed in 1947 with Peggy’s return to Europe – this gallery functioned not only as a kind of meeting place for artists that the war on the European continent had forced into exile, such as the surrealists Max Ernst, André Breton, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy, but it was also a launch pad for new American artists who were beginning to emerge on the contemporary art scene. In the first major exhibition that the gallery dedicated to young talents in American painting, three artists were distinguished – Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), William Baziotes (1912-1963) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991). Their works were associated with Abstract Expressionism, as practiced by the so-called New York School.

Possibilities 1 : an occasional review

It was in this post-war scenario of the New York artistic avant-garde that, in September 1947, the magazine Possibilities 1: an occasional review appeared. The editorial responsibilities of the magazine were shared by three important personalities: Robert Motherwell, painter, Harold Rosenberg (1906-1978), writer and art critic, who was at the origin of the expression “action painting”, and John Cage (1912-1992), composer and musician. These three Americans were joined by Pierre Chareau (1883-1950), a French architect and designer who, before leaving for New York in 1940, had been the author of Maison de verre (Paris, 1927) and one of the founders of the Union des Artistes Modernes (1929). In the first and only issue (the second was prepared but not published) Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg presented Possibilities as a magazine of artists and writers who “practice” in their work their own experience without seeking to transcend it in academic, group or political formulas. In this manifesto they also stated that Such practice implies the belief that through conversion of energy something valid may come out and that The question of what will emerge is left open. The issue also included articles by Jean Arp, William Baziotes, Miró, Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Oscar Niemeyer (on the architecture of a recently built church in Brazil). The magazine was also number 4 in a series entitled Problems of Contemporary Art which, in turn, was part of another, Documents of Modern Art, directed by Robert Motherwell, which set out to publish the fundamental texts for the study and understanding of 20th century art. Despite its short existence, Possibilities constitutes an important document in the context of contemporary art and is now a bibliographic rarity.

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