Paintings from the period, such as Roses in a White Place
, 1951 (plate 4)
, and Faded Roses
, 1952 (plate 3)
, acknowledge by title their source. In 1949, the Brices moved into a house of their own, where they continue to live today. A 1936 prefabricated design by the modernist architect Richard Neutra, the house’s verdant west Los Angeles location (it had been moved from a site more in the center of town) fed the artist’s growing interest in the landscape. Brice turned to his own backyard garden for models, resulting in a lengthy series of flower paintings. Their imagery is difficult to decipher, composed as it is of an amalgam of abstract spatial forms and naturalistic color. Brice’s familiarity with Arshile Gorky’s landscape-inspired abstractions reveals itself in these works. However, the younger artist’s ultimate fidelity to the model separates his efforts from Gorky’s looser evocations of place. Again, Brice’s sophisticated knowledge of modern art, garnered in his visits to galleries first in New York and then in Los Angeles, helped him in the passage from student to artist. Picasso’s inventions, for many years Gorky’s sole source, proved nourishing to Brice as well.
In effect, Brice framed a larger field in the flower paintings; he achieved an allover composition abstracted directly from reality. His close attention to the form at hand prompted him to incorporate the brief life cycle of flowers into his paintings, hence the “faded” roses. Brice remembers working from several bouquets in various states of disintegration; he consciously wished to annex time, and by extension a recognition of mortality, into his work. No doubt the birth of his son in 1950 and his mother’s death in 1951 intensified his fascination with temporality. After working with flowers for nearly five years, in both watercolors and oils, he had reduced them in his paintings to just petals. In simplifying form and etherealizing atmospheric light, he exhausted the subject, grew dissatisfied, and recollects now “a feeling then of needing something tactile.” Complex in their internal arrangement and sometimes hallucinatory in their frenzy of emanating forms, the flower paintings are a final outburst of an expressionist, nearly chaotic composition in Brice’s work, and a reaction to the perfection of the earlier stone paintings. The following fifteen years constitute a long struggle of these opposing forces—utopian and pragmatic—in Brice’s nature, only reconciled after 1970.
By the mid-1950s, Brice had expanded his sights beyond studio still-lifes and his own garden to the arid canyons that course their way through the hills that frame the Los Angeles basin. Brice moved outside, beginning to draw along Mulholland Drive, a then almost rural road that snakes along the top of the hills on the northern edge of Los Angeles proper. Mulholland gave Brice access to the brushy chaparral native to the area, as well as views of the teeming, gridded city spreading out to the horizon on one side and to the Pacific on the other. Brice drew the rugged terrain, often working from a natural focal point such as a tree or stump. It was during one of the Mulholland visits that Brice experienced his first epiphany of nature. He recalls a sudden, physical understanding that he could intuitively sense everything in the landscape—from the clouds overhead to the ants at his feet—with his eyes closed. His momentary delirium of having fused with his subject seems to have released Brice from the lingering need to realistically record and depict.
Brice’s paintings assumed a larger scale as he began a series of heroic landscapes that mark a growing artistic confidence. His largest paintings to date, these works are highly ambitious in the range and interconnectedness of the subjects rendered. Some, like Land Fracture
, 1954-55 (plate 7)
, are truly panoramic in scope. Eight feet tall, it is painted on a sand-stippled board—satisfying Brice’s need for greater tactility as well as his preference for an absorbent surface. The painting is a dense tangle of organic shapes organized around a blue-to-black fissure that extends vertically across its right side. The picture’s perspective is dramatic and unspecified, seeming at once to be an overhead and a lateral view. The horizon crosses from earth to water. Elsewhere, fragments of vine or driftwood loosely knit together a jumble of tectonic planes. Blues, greys, and whites color the forms and play against one another, strongly separating figure from ground. It is a gritty, textured painting, anxious but clearly “about” rock, wood, sky, and water—all contained in a light-filled atmosphere. The clotted intermingling of one form with the next underscores a symbiosis of elements.
, 1954 (plate 5)
, suggests a similar analysis, but exemplifies even more clearly how Brice welds two disparate visual shorthands into an integrated whole. Here, figure and ground are more clearly divorced from each other. A gnarled tree spreads over the earth, while its submerged roots tap into it. The root system underscores Brice’s understanding of the mutual dependency of living things. Much as in the flower paintings, Brice implies the sequence of time from root to blossom to fruit. White planes of light delineate the picture’s ambient space, parting at the center to reveal a full moon/sun partially obscured by a branch of the tree. Otherwise, Brice’s palette is low-keyed and mottled—with browns, purples, and greens predominating. It is a rich, Gothic plant, character laden, almost human. The shimmering atmospheric rectangles again acknowledge Brice’s kinship to the layered, planar space common to all cubist-inspired artists, while the jagged silhouette of the tree embodies Brice’s organically derived, calligraphic drawing. The combination of these two differing impulses to structure underlies all of Brice’s work. Speaking at some years’ remove, Brice explained his intentions:
I wanted something expansive, suggesting the panorama yet permitting the proximate sensation simultaneously. I found that painting a landscape from a given point of view defeated what I was searching for. I assembled incidents gathered from various sites….I found I could alter the axis of my painting as I worked on it. I was painting in an area of abstraction where I could convert a form from rock to cloud. Solid things were malleable.
The verticality of Fruit Tree and its companion paintings from the late 1950s hint at Brice’s gradual return to overt figuration early in the 1960s. In his movement from a figurative expressionism to still-life and then to landscape subjects, Brice depopulated his paintings. However, he continued to draw from live models through the 1950s—a practice he continues twenty year later—honing his considerable depicting skills. The drawing Maternal Figure, 1958 (figure 3), is typical of one aspect of his work on paper late in the decade. A featureless, pregnant woman clings to a child as she, in turn, is grasped by another standing infant. Brice locates this trio in a rock-strewn terrain, an indeterminate locale with a decidedly inhospitable appearance. Paintings with similar subjects occupied him during this period, but Brice’s concern with maternal themes proved short-lived. Though generally unsuccessful, the paintings signaled a gradual, yet significant, shift from local, organic color to the more subjective and emotionally responsive color that has since marked his work.
At cul-de-sacs throughout his painting career, Brice has instinctively turned to drawing for alternatives. In drawings such as Nocturnal Fragments
, 1960 (figure 4), and Two Figures and Root
, 1960 (plate 26)
, he seems to have been seeking a way out of this self-devised dead end; in them, he took the important step of disassembling the body and other organic forms, and arranging them in a more potently imaginative fashion. The expressive acuity of many of the figure drawings of the early 1960s such as Figure
, 1963 (figure 5), and Large Figure
, 1963 (plate 27)
, emboldened Brice as he gradually reintroduced the human presence to his paintings.
that followed marked an important turning point. The paintings are populated with figures situated in architectural surrounding and individualized only by posture and gesture. As paintings depicting human bodies, they obliged a shift in Brice’s palette towards red-based color. Done mostly in flat magna paints, the pictures foretell what was to become the typical Brice surface: washes of closely-hued tones, evenly applied, and most uninflected. At first, Brice lights these rooms of figures and objects from strongly denoted openings—windows are, in fact, their most prominent feature. Neutra’s fenestration, in both the Brice house and the free-standing 20 by 30 foot studio Brice commissioned from Neutra in the early 1950s, seems to have deeply influenced the tenant-artist. Brice’s house is screened from the street by a garage, a wall, and a hedge; one enters through a gate and walks beside the garage to the painted wooden box that forms the house.
figure 3. William Brice, Maternal Figure, 1958, charcoal on paper, 40 x 32 in.
Inside, a clerestory lights one end of the rectangular living room and a suite of large, starkly mullioned windows directs the eye out to the yard (figure 6). Neutra’s penchant for using architecturally defined outdoor vistas as focal points for his interiors is clearly evident. Something akin to this melding of architecture and landscape happens in Interior II, 1963-64 (plate 11). The corner of a light-filled orange room offers views through two windows—one to an undistinguished path and greensward, the other to two partial and enigmatically posed figures. The orange, pink, blue, and purple hues of the painting evince Brice’s late-blooming interest in Matisse, as do the patterned floor and chair cushions. It is typical of Brice’s restraint at this point that the figures are placed outside the intimacy of the confined architectural space and so ambiguously drawn as to be genderless. While successfully producing the visual “temperature” he admires in Matisse’s work, Brice empties it, rendering the space neutral, even melancholic.