The artist’s first reaction to the woodcut proof was to marvel at how accurately the printers had recreated his image. In an attempt to simulate the delicate modulation of his watercolor wash, they had carved many different woodblocks and overprinted time and again. The precision and coloristic subtlety of this piece are reflected in the fact that Toda used only seven colors on the nineteen woodblocks, which were printed forty-eight times for each impression. To achieve a passage of saturated color, the craftsman overprinted the same area several times, gradually building up opacity. Each of these matrices printed hard edges, however, and it was impossible to reproduce the diffuse edges of the watercolor wash. There was an inevitable tightening of the image, as if the soft wash drawing had been brought into focus by twisting a camera lens. Brice and Toda worked together to adjust and attune the colors of the print. Originally the artist had intended that the woodcut, like his watercolor, be executed in tones of gray, with a blue accent in the inset central motif. Later he introduced tinges of blue and ivory to the gray wash throughout the passages of the rock surface. After trying several variations, he chose the final colors and endorsed a bon à tirer, or “good to print,” impression. When he was invited to name the print, Brice, whose habit it is not to title his works, selected Kyoto to commemorate his visit to this capital of Japanese culture and his collaboration with the ukiyo-e masters.
His experience in Japan had further reverberations in Brice’s art. After returning to Los Angeles, the artist was haunted by watercolor, and for a year or more he continued to work extensively in this medium. Its subtleties of color and tone, the effects of transparency and luminosity that it allowed, also had repercussions in many of his paintings, drawings, and prints for several years to come. In turn, the wash and watercolor drawings that he created became the models for prints in other media, including lithographs and intaglios.
During the 1980s the Ford Foundation offered grants to UCLA faculty members for individual creative projects. Brice proposed an experimental collaborative printmaking project in which he would not only create a group of prints but also, for the first time, act as their publisher. When he secured this limited, onetime award, Brice enlisted the talents of Robert Aull, a master intaglio printer in Santa Monica, who had previously worked at Gemini G.E.L. The artist’s choices of mode and technique in the five prints that they produced are quite revealing. This was a time when many American artists were working on ever more complex prints, as large, bright, and dramatic as monumental paintings. Brice himself had worked with a number of highly skilled printer-technicians and was familiar with the most sophisticated procedures of relief, lithography, and intaglio printmaking. However, the artist’s impulse to distill and purify—an urge manifested in his repetitious, meditative drawing process—is apparent in these prints. Brice concentrated on miniature plates, similar in scale to his Notations, printed in black ink only. In their size and direct style this group of prints is parallel to the intaglios that the artist printed for himself at UCLA in the late 1950s. In selecting this size and shape, he retained the effect of his preparatory drawings and also controlled how the viewer would approach and perceive the prints. For in order to appreciate a composition of this size, the piece must be observed close up, ideally even held in the hand. The majority of Brice’s prints of the 1980s and 1990s share this scale and delicacy. These works of art were meant not to decorate the wall of a room, but to be quietly and thoughtfully read like a book.
Technically these prints are uncomplicated line etchings combined with aquatint. Their imagery is derived from the Notations, and using his personal vocabulary of shapes and forms, Brice includes a human figure in each. In one etching, for example, an elementary figure emerges from an assemblage of slabs and meanders whose relationship to classicizing architectonic forms we recognize only through our understanding of their evolution and of Brice’s oeuvre. These prints incorporate devices of contour, overlapping and transparency that Picasso and Georges Braque had used in early Cubism to suggest multiple viewpoints; Brice, however, uses them primarily to create composite images. Some of the plates also utilize the device of the black line haloed in white, juxtaposed with a jet background, an element that appears in Braque’s prints of the late 1940s and 1950s.
In 1990 Brice visited the Tamarind Institute, the lithography workshop and printer training program that, after a decade in Los Angeles, had been transplanted to Albuquerque and reorganized as a division of the College of Fine Arts at the University of New Mexico. The artist took full advantage of Tamarind’s technical facilities and the capabilities of its printers in four elegant lithographs, produced under the supervision of Bill Lagattuta. The last of these was included in the portfolio Artists’ Impressions, a suite of prints published to commemorate Tamarind’s thirtieth anniversary in 1990 (see fig. 4). This delicate lithograph approximated the imagery of Brice’s essentially monochromatic watercolors. The laden subject references are still present; both the watercolor illustrated here and the lithograph seem to depict stacks of weathered rocks carved with pictographs. A wide eye appears in both images, reminiscent of the charged motifs that ornamented ancient Greek drinking vessels and the prows of Roman battleships. The most arresting feature of this print, however, is its delicately agitated surface. This reticular texture is fascinatingly paradoxical, for it can be read both as liquid and moving and as rocky and solid. To achieve this effect, Brice prepared the lithographic plates with washes of tusche, then dissolved them with solvents that pooled the ink and evaporated to leave a range of mottled, stratigraphic patterns. The artist had skillfully used this technique in his exploratory Tamarind lithographs of 1962 (see fig. 7).
Intervening experiences with oil painting, watercolor, and lithography led Brice to approach intaglio printmaking from a freer, more experimental viewpoint when he again visited Crown Point Press in 1990. Although this printmaking campaign also began with experimental color prints similar in size and imagery to the Notations, the artist was soon drawn to the stony surfaces that so fascinated him and to the technique of soap-ground aquatint. This is apparent, for example, in the flinty stippled field of red in one of these striking intaglios. This image exemplifies how Brice’s vocabulary of motifs had evolved from sculptural fragments into the sort of pictographs that were carved or painted onto rocks by paleolithic cultures all over the world. These symbolically charged characters were again the producers of the artist’s long processes of refinement through drawing, and their forebears are apparent in the intaglios printed by Robert Aull and in the three color lithographs produced at Tamarind in 1989. Usually these symbols represent the human figure reduced to the potent elements of an eye, a limb, the rib cage, or genitalia. Here again allusions to fertility appear in the spermlike squiggles that distinguish the gender of some figures or link couples. By choosing such a brilliant hue for the background of this intaglio and by haloing the calligraphy in color, the artist invigorated his image, suggesting yet another set of associations. For these spirited ideograms are much like brightly dyed fabrics, woven with magical, iconic designs, and they prompt us to imagine more vividly the people who might have made them.
The free, loopy character of this calligraphy is similar to the fluid, continuous line drawings with which Braque represented mythological subjects in his prints of the 1940s (see fig. 10). Brice’s linear, symbolic figures are also similar to the gestural loops and scribbles that transmogrify into fantastic creatures in Miró’s prints of the 1950s. These prints also bear comparison to the imagery of Brice’s contemporary, the San Francisco painter and printmaker Frank Lobdell. In Lobdell’s work brightly colored fields provide the background for much-simplified, heavily outlined figure references, which remain intensely expressive of human instinct and emotion.
fig 10. Georges Braque, Artemis, 1932
from the series Hesiod’s Theogony,
etching, 14 1/2 x 11 3/4 in.
Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts.
Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Ernst Grunwald.
Brice’s first experiments with book illustration were published as photomechanical reproductions of line drawings, which illuminated the writings of his friend Jascha Kessler. For many years the artist had known this eminent author of prose and verse, who is professor of English and twentieth-century American and British literature at UCLA. The depth of their rapport is apparent in Kessler’s conversational interview with Brice, which appeared in Art International in 1979, the year of their first collaboration, on Kessler’s book Bearing Gifts. The artist executed another group of classicizing drawings, fifteen of which were reproduced in Kessler’s Transmigrations in 1985. The economy of means and depth of content in these images is reminiscent of Picasso’s simple and eloquent intaglio illustrations for Carmen (1949) and Corps perdu (1949-50).