"This is 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.
Such practice implies the belief that through conversion of energy something valid may come out, whatever situation one is forced to begin with.
The question of what will emerge is left open. One functions in an attitude of expectancy. As Juan Gris said: you are lost the instant you know what the result will be."
Selected Subject Headings
- Artists - poetry
- Artists’ writings
- Automatism (art movement)
- Composers - United States
- Church architecture - Brazil
- Great Wall of China (China) in literature
- Mythology - social aspects
- Musicians’ writings
- Painting, Abstract - United States
- Short stories, American - 20th century
Possibilities: an occasional review was the fourth title in Witterborn’s series “Problems of contemporary art,” described by the publisher as “an open forum for 20th century artists, scholars and writers, the word “art” being taken in the broadest sense. A medium for exchanging work and ideas, it is to be controversial in nature.”
Edited by Robert Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg in 1947, Possibilities’ life span was limited to a single issue, but even if a short lived venture, it was bound to be a resonant one. With a modernist design by Paul Rand, the journal’s acid yellow covers encapsulate a significant moment in the U.S. postwar cultural regrouping after the Second World War effort; it was not an isolated occurrence, as in October of the same year the first issue of The Tiger’s eye was published, and another publication in which Rosenberg was also to be involved, Instead, was to start its short run in 1948. After the Second World War global catastrophe and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it appears that the United States’ cultural scene was ready to regroup.
Although John Cage and Pierre Chareau are listed as music and architecture editors, it is the art and writing editors, Motherwell and Rosenberg, who signed the journal’s opening salvo, which we have partially quoted above. In its entirety, their editorial reads as a call against an overburdening need for political alignment; they write: “Naturally the deadly political situation exerts an enormous pressure,” reacting against what they perceived an oppressive call to take sides on the ideological divide erected after the war, a divide that would give us forty years of so-called Cold War. Rosenberg and Motherwell’s solution to this ideological conundrum was a call for cultural producers to exert “the extremest faith in sheer possibility,” as “in his extremism he shows that he has recognized how drastic the political presence is.”
Thus Possibilities’ cast aside an overarching ideological framework and favored juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated works and practices: from Baziotes short statement “I cannot evolve any concrete theory” to images from Niemeyer’s reinforced concrete Igreja de São Francisco de Assis in Minas Gerais, Brazil; from David Smith’s poetry to Ben Wester's and Virgil Thompson's responses to questions posed by a younger generation of composers, Paul Bowles, Elliot Carter and Lou Harrison among them.
In hindsight, the journal has been considered as one of Abstract Expressionism’s “manifestos,” which obviously contradicts the editor’s intentions of opening a field, rather than shoring it up. But the fact remains, the artists, writers and musicians featured among its pages provide an amber-like crystallization of New York’s late 1940s artistic and intellectual milieu and in particular to artists and intellectuals later grouped under Abstract Expressionism’s umbrella: Rosenberg’s essay for Paris’ Galerie Maeght 1947 exhibition on recent American painting, a group show with works by Baziotes, Gottlieb, Motherwell, and Romare Bearden, is published alongside Mark Rothko’s text “The romantics were prompted;” even the space dedicated to previous generations aligns itself to practices loosely associated with the standard roster of the movement’s influences: an interview with Joan Miró, a translation of Jean Arp’s words, as well as Huelsenbeck’s text on Dada juxtaposed with an excerpt from Edgar Allan Poe’s Marginalia on language.
Language and literature are also present in Possibilities’ pages, with Instead’s editor Lionel Abel translating Valery’s “The silence of painters” and contributing a short play, and short stories by Paul Goodman and Cuban American author Lino Novás Calvo. The journal ends with a detailed section dedicated to composers Edgard Varèse and Alexei Haieff, again responding to questions posed by their peers, this time with Henry Cowell and John Cage among them.
In her close reading of Possibilities, Ann Eden Gibson suggests a variety of points of entry to be able to situate this unconventional crystallization of discourse, the journal’s puzzling refusal to state a program; what she suggests ranges from appeals to Motherwell’s West Coast’s “looseness”--“My philosophy is to let everyone be what they are”--to tracing genealogical antecedents in Modernist literature's collage techniques, Dewey's influence as well as North America’s tradition of pragmatic philosophy, Black Mountain College’s emphasis on chance and improvisation, or even Rosenberg’s interest in Existentialism via Lévinas.
Be that as it may, what one encounters while perusing Possibilities’ pages now is a disparate amalgamation of practices that remain of interest not just because they have been juxtaposed together by the editors, but rather, because they point out toward a variety of objects of knowledge--art works, literature, music--that in their difference continue to provide an indication of the range of possibilities opened by artists and cultural producers still coming to terms with the devastating results of ideological dogmatisms.
In their joint editorial, Motherwell and Rosenberg wrote: “whoever genuinely believes he knows how to save humanity from catastrophe has a job before him which is certainly not a part-time one;” as we write, in the internationally fraught and violent November 2015, Possibilities’ eerie words and its refusal to settle down, forcefully keeping open the realm of potentiality, might be the most hopeful lesson we could derive from this intellectual fleeting moment captured between two luminous yellow hard paper covers.
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Robert Motherwell and Harold Rosenberg. "Possibilities 1," Possibilities (New York), no. 1 (Winter 1947-1948): 1.
Excerpted from Possibilities' back cover.
ccindex continues to index The tiger's eye's complete run. Please log in into the database to peruse the already indexed contents. Infoweb record forthcoming.
In Serge Guilbaut's essential How New York stole the idea of modern art: abstract expressionism, freedom, and the cold war (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), the table of contents reads as follow: 1. New York, 1935-1941: the de-Marxization of the Intelligentsia; 2. The Second World War and the attempt to establish an independent American art; 3. The creation of an American avant-garde, 1945-1947; 4. Success: How New York stole the notion of modernism from the Parisians, 1948.
Ann Eden Gibson. "Possibilities: 'The thing--without theory,'" in Issues in Abstract Expressionism: the Artist-Run Periodicals. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1990: 33-39.