Between Stability and Chaos: Part Three (of 6)—A Mentor for Life
Art is a collision of new truths and awakened sensibilities; it is a serious understanding of the untried and unexpected.
10 Years of Painting, Exhibition Catalogue,
Lowe Art Gallery, Syracuse University,
October 10 – November 9, 1971
It was natural that Fanny would recommend her 13-year-old son study art under Henry Botkin. She knew he was giving art lessons to her good friend and his cousin, George Gershwin. She was aware, too, that Botkin was his cousin’s curator, helping Gershwin amass a world-class art collection, and that Botkin was a well-regarded New York artist.
Brice spent his earliest years mostly alone. His father had abandoned him and his family when Brice was six. His professional mother was largely unavailable to him. His care was left to disengaged governesses who mistreated him. As a preadolescent, Brice spent months convalescing by himself in a sanitarium due to rickets and pectus excavatum (soft, concave bones of the sternum). What he did have, though, was plenty of uninterrupted time to ‘live in his head’, to observe his environment and his own imagination, and to invent images. He became a habitual ‘drawer’.
Brice and Botkin
One can imagine the 13-year-old’s feelings the day he met Botkin, his new personal art teacher, a professional artist—who came to Brice’s mother’s home, not to see her, but just for him.
Here was a patient, kind, intelligent, articulate, and deeply thoughtful man who was filled with curiosity. He was still young at 38-years-old, nearly 20 years younger than Brice’s absent father. And contrary to his father, Botkin was invested in something bigger than himself—in his love and reverence for art and its history of art makers. And he, too, was devoted to ‘looking’ and making.
For over a year, Botkin visited Brice two to three times a week. He worked with Brice on the essentials of interpreting space, light, tone, line, shape, form, color, and compositional relationships. He also took the young man out to Manhattan’s remarkable museums and its many galleries, where they wandered through exhibitions looking and discussing what was before them. Botkin acquainted the 13-year-old with art from around the world: African, Assyrian, Egyptian, Indian, Islamic, Japanese, Chinese, and European art: Greek, Roman, Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Rococo, Impressionism, and so on to modern and avant-garde art.
Botkin was a generous man in young Brice’s life, who enjoyed and encouraged the teen, rather than ignoring or reprimanding him.
Brice came to admire Botkin and, through him, became fascinated with modernism. In particular, his evolving appreciation for Botkin’s seven years spent living and working in Paris grew into respect for what it meant to be an artist in Paris at that time—the then capital of the avant-garde in art and culture and the undisputed center of global art.
Moreover, Botkin’s neighbors in the 1920s were Braque and Derain. Botkin knew many of the artists who were part of “the School of Paris” in the twenties as he helped to subsidize himself by bringing forty to fifty paintings by these artists with him whenever he returned to New York. He would then sell works by artists including Picasso, Braque, and Gaugin to American collectors, including his cousin, George Gershwin.
How do we know Brice was captivated by Botkin and by what he was learning about modern art? Because Brice chose to buy his first artwork out of his savings—that $25 per month that his mother had put away for him since his birth. The work he chose was Boy in Drawers, a 1906 Picasso gouache that Brice purchased for $350 in 1934, or in today’s money, $$7,164.81. How unusual it was, and would be today, for any teen to spend over $7,000 on a work of art?
The other thing we know is that Brice had a particularly sophisticated eye, especially for a thirteen-year-old.
Indeed, Vienna’s Albertina Museum recently requested Boy in Drawers for its exhibition, Modigliani – Picasso: The Primitivist Revolution, September 17, 2021, to January 9, 2022, writing:
The following work from your collection is of particular importance for our exhibition: The young boy represents a particularly beautiful example from a series of male nudes painted at Gósol, Catalonia, in the spring and summer of 1906.
Many of these nudes are framed by a reddish background maybe inspired by Matisse and the Fauves. The absent-minded gaze, oversized eyes of the boy bear witness to Picasso’s engagement with Iberian or Romanic Spanish sculpture at that time, while the hieratic posture is closely connected to the archaic sculpture the artist had admired at the Musee du Louvre a few months earlier.
Brice treasured the work for the rest of his life.
A Young Man Blooms
Brice’s year spent with Botkin was the turning point that laid the foundation for his future.
As his mother observed of her quiet son, “When he started talking, we couldn’t shut him up. Oh, boy!” Brice had discovered his voice literally and in art; he would become an articulate and vivid ‘speaker’ on both counts.
“By the time I was 16, I knew that [art] was to be my life. And I’ve never changed my mind,” Brice related to a gathered crowd during his MOCA mid-career retrospective walkthrough.
Fanny moved Brice, aged 16, and his sister to Beverly Hills as her career transitioned from stage to movies and finally to radio. However, when Brice finished high school in Los Angeles, he returned to live with Botkin and his family in New York and to attend the Arts Students League, which had been Botkin’s alma mater and that of so many notable American artists.
Brice said that what he learned in the year he lived with Botkin, his wife Rhoda, and their two children, was not about art, but about the life of an artist. This had deep meaning for Brice. So did the daily experience of being part of a ‘normal’, happy family. What did Botkin mean to Brice, to his art, and his life? We know from Brice’s impassioned, tender letter of condolence to Botkin’s children at Botkin’s passing in 1983. The letter is remarkable for two reasons. It reveals Brice’s deep reverence for Botkin. It also reveals the striking similarities between the two artists and men.
Below are some of the attributes that Brice ascribed to Botkin in his letter and attributes that Brice’s students ascribed to him decades later:
Brice on Botkin
Brice’s Students on Brice
A Deep and Abiding Enthusiasm
for the Wonder of Art
…he was enthusiastically appreciative, capable of being deeply moved by the wonder of [art].
He instilled in us a love of art history. He had enthusiasm. He’d get us hepped up.
Gentle and Patient in Their Approaches to Teaching
and Modeling a Commitment to Art
He was totally absorbed in [art] and conveyed to me through his gentle teachings and infinite patience and through his own creative process a value in life commitment.
His lifetime of devotion to his work, even in the face of obstacles, has been the most powerful teaching of all.
He actually had a loving way, a gentle way about him…
Confident in his Own Powers but
Never Arrogant or Superior
…he was confident of his own powers as an artist but remained ceaselessly open and questioning, never complacent, and never arrogant.
I would say [Bill’s] was a towering intelligence, which is just really amazing. But he never had any sense of superiority.
A Model of a Vibrant, Lifelong Commitment
as an Artist
Even in the late years of his life, he retained an adventurous excitement and youthful vibrancy…
He was certainly a model for intense commitment as an artist…
What becomes unassailable is that Botkin was not merely Brice’s teacher, nor even just his mentor, but Brice’s de facto father.
Botkin’s choices to be a caring and honorable man, to be devoted to something bigger than himself, to be a maker, and to be a giver, were in stark contrast to Julius Nicky Arnstein’s choices to be devoted only to himself—to con, to philander, to steal, to be a taker. For Brice, Botkin was an oasis in his desert, and he couldn’t stop drinking from it for the rest of his life.
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To be Continued – See our Next Blog: Between Stability and Chaos: Part Four (of 6)—“California Here I Come”