something akin to pictograms or hieroglyphs. In 1968, he first incorporated images of compound rock formations that occur in nature, as well as fragments of ancient Greek architecture.
Then in 1970, Brice went to Greece with his wife Shirley and son John. The encounter with antiquity was revelatory: as art historian David Acton explains, “At that time, the fragmented, visibly eroding ruins of antiquity still lay haphazardly on the ground, evocative splinters of classical civilization. Brice took many photographs of landscape vistas and of the shards of ashlar masonry, fluted columns, molded entablatures and carved capitals, all jumbled together on the ground. He was aesthetically reenergized and redirected. In his own work, he had long been seeking to compare the individual’s experience of life, both perceptual and emotional, with the grand scope of universal human experience. He now realized that this notion could be symbolized by reference to classical civilization.”5
The ancient stone fragments that Brice saw contained their own primeval natural history, as naturally occurring material, as well as an indelible human history. William Brice describes: “the Greece I saw was not the Greece of the history books or the Greece of the museum treasures, it was Greece at my feet. It was a landscape of fragments, all in shambles, or in the process of reconstruction, shards, and memory, and remnants. Fragmented forms have long been present in my work, and there was something quite moving about all that was strewn upon the ground there. You pick up a rock, or is it a rock, it’s a piece of something, a few indecipherable marks upon it, defaced and yet imbedded within it is the human presence.”6 Discovering a “human presence,” “imbedded” in the stone—it is almost as if he were rediscovering a potent imaginative resource that he already understood and evinced in the early Rock Formations. But now it would manifest itself with new—and simultaneously ancient—imagery.
The emergence of Brice’s mature “signature” style brought him to a new mode of abstraction that intersected his greater daring to present erotic subjects. The thighs, shoulders, breasts, hands, legs, back, stomach and buttocks were all there, as they had been in his more realistic renderings, together with newly prominent penile and vaginal forms, but he abstracted them like pictograms or hieroglyphs or talismans, as simplified as the features of stick figures. They were no longer the referents of the models whose bodies he drew and painted. Instead of belonging to his sitters, they now were the proprietary “stuff” of his own visual vocabulary and artistic imagination. Moreover, Brice allowed himself the privilege of putting these body parts together however he wished to suit his art and its visual poetics. Through his newfound abstraction, he was able to dissect the human body, putting it back together as a kind of visual collage of its parts without fidelity to true human form or anatomical structure. They did not have to add up to the appearance of a human form; it was enough—powerfully enough—to be evocatively and provocatively anthropomorphic.
Untitled (1973), a charcoal drawing, is a good example of his post-Greek style. The faintly human-like forms that float on the drawing’s surface appear to be fragments of what may have been a stone carving of a female. The dominant central fragment appears to be a pelvis and two thighs standing, almost ceremoniously, on a plinth. Hovering between this monumental fragment and the borders of the drawing paper are miscellaneous body parts: an (evident) arm and possibly some internal organs, but definitely biomorphic forms, all unattached, waiting to be restored in the viewer’s imagination. Brice assigns the viewer not a passive role as a sensitive observer in this new style, but an active participating role as a wonderer, a conjurer, and maybe even a voyeur, in the way that spectators become voyeurs in looking at “hidden” photographs or medical illustrations—we do not merely see, we peer, we stare.
Over time, Brice’s compositions became bolder and more complex, usually more emphatically sexual, and iconic in appearance. One such work is a grand, nine-foot-square untitled painting from 1984 in the collection of the Orange County Museum of Art. The canvas is visually bisected down the middle, setting up a left/right dialogue. On the left a vertical stack of rugged biomorphic masses painted in warm bluish grays reads as a distinctly masculine figure. Suggestions of phallic imagery—upright verticals, dual spheres—endow the figure with sexuality, even though the form is scarcely humanoid in shape. On the right, a similarly proportioned stack-up of forms is rendered much more diagrammatically, an outline of a figure limned in black lines over a warm grayish green background. Again, while not clearly depicting a human form, the figure is sexualized with vulvate and breast-like shapes. Both figures maintain equal visual claim on the viewer’s imagination, and neither dominates the other. They exist, or co-exist, in a state of timeless equipoise.
But there is a third figure as well: in the upper part of the composition, straddling the empty space between this couple is a torso-like form that might almost be a schematic blueprint of a human being: shoulders, a spine, a pelvic bone are evident, as are squiggly shapes that may represent viscera. It is rendered as a pastiche of painted masses and black lines. Whether this third being is new life, or an interloping third party, or even a totemic emblem of sexual congress itself, is
impossible to say. But the question, in addition to being unanswerable, does not ask to be answered; the power of this work, as with so many of Brice’s paintings and drawings from the 1970s on, is its static, inscrutable mysteriousness. It is as if Brice had imbued it with a near-Olympian aloofness, not to be understood or adjudged, but to be recognized and to be undeniably present in the world, a fact of life.
As archetypal, Jungian, and psychologically compelling as his works from the 1970s and ’80s were, by the 1990s, when the artist was now a septuagenarian, they grew increasingly charged and primal. What had been erotic was now distilled, or amplified, to representations of an almost purely biological drive, literally a life force. His show of these late paintings, in 1998 at L.A. Louver, was dominated by about a dozen massive canvases painted for the exhibition. Their forms were strong and flat, brightly colored in a way reminiscent of the early American modernist Stuart Davis’ paintings, but monumental in size and scale, visually bold and agitated at the same time.
Describing the exhibition, critic Michael Duncan wrote that “sexual imagery abounds, often with lightning-bolt zigzags separating forms with masculine or feminine associations. In one work, a bright yellow lightning bolt vertically separates a lipstick-red, dress-like shape from an architectonic stack featuring two huge blue balls. The largest painting in the show presents a phallic piston shape immersed in a cavity made from two female torsos. In another of the large paintings, an upright rib cage and spinal column are juxtaposed with an egg-like womb. Set against a primary red background, these symbols together seem to engender a stack of burgeoning cells. Linking painting with procreation, Brice celebrates a sort of erotic biology.”7 Sexuality seems to have meant something more than ever for the aging Brice. In these late pictures, the echoes of the female nudes are still present, but they assert their presence not in erotic situations of longing, of apartness and reunion, but in the driving energy of living creatures.