Critics have called William Brice’s art profoundly personal. I consider their observation to be the wellspring of his art’s power and uniqueness.
“I have tended to live in such a way that I could concentrate and that I could, in a sense, immerse myself in what I was doing…I felt very much connected, indebted to the persons who had taught me. When I looked at work of artists, it was as if they were alive again, with me. And so, that sense of continuity was significant to me. And the environment also was something I needed and wanted. And that was that I could identify.”
From: Brice MoCA Walkthrough/WilliamBrice.org/Library/Videos
My father was engaged in the practice of art for seventy-five years. As the story goes, his fascination became manifest when in New York at age 13 he asked his mother whether he could take art lessons. She introduced him to the noted American artist Henry Botkin, who had been involved in the School of Paris from 1926 to 1933. Under Botkin’s tutelage, my father received drawing and painting lessons and visited New York galleries and museum exhibitions weekly. Then, as my father has commented, “By the time I was 16 I knew [art] was to be my life. And I’ve never changed my mind or even had reason to question that.” I am quite sure that my father painted and/or drew nearly every day for the rest of life and until the day of his death.
Beyond personal expression, art was a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of contemplating his perceptions and experiences of life, and a way to connect with people whether they were his mentor, Henry Botkin, his students, curators, or fellow artists. He frequented exhibitions with artist friends and colleagues, one of whom tells of how their personal conversations in front of works would often draw an eavesdropper or two, who casually leaned in to hear their quiet if lively exchanges. Soon, a crowd would gather, listening with rapt attention to their conversations that were uniquely insightful, spirited, and often amusing, but never judgmental. Many including myself remember going to exhibitions with my father as one of life’s great thrills.
Possibly in contrast to today’s crop of young artists, my father made a clear distinction between being an artist and making a career in art. While he recognized the worth of both, for him the latter was the price he had to pay for the former. Exhibitions, interviews, professional photography sessions, etc., were nearly always unwanted intrusions, which he tried his best to avoid or to delay as long as possible.
For artists, there seems to be two different paths: they either hit upon their ‘style’ early in their careers, which remains fairly constant and identifiable over their creative lifetimes, such as the art of Henry Moore, or they explore various ‘styles’ that change enormously over their lifetimes, such as Picasso.
My father would appear to fit into the latter category. As his periods of personal and artistic investigation shifted so did his works’ formal qualities in order to best articulate his evolving ideas and feelings in regards to his ongoing discoveries. Thus, at first glance, the body of his work may appear as if created by four or five different artists.
However, there are key, underlying themes and motifs—constant veins running through my father’s oeuvre—which evolved through his inner dialogue as he lived, thought, felt, and created. Howard Fox has briefly addressed many of these central themes and motifs with great perception and eloquence in his introduction to, and commentaries on Themes/Motifs and Process on this site.
As with the variety of his subjects and their formal qualities, the moods of my father’s work similarly span a strikingly wide range from the somber (and even the sinister), to the sensual, the erotic, the philosophical, and the metaphysical. He produced closely toned and hued works that can be quiet, solitary, intimate, and even meditative while others have fantastic power, dynamics, and expanse. Meanwhile, he drew cartoons for close friends and family that exude humorously ironic and merry ebullience; yet another side of the man.
One easily senses emotional undertones in his art of anxiety, restlessness, the dark and disturbing, the dangerous—but also of sweeping joy and passion. Yet its overtones can be lyrical, elegant, beautiful, and energetic. Finally, in his mature work, both undertones and overtones can coexist in the same pieces, often discordantly, creating a disconcerting experience for the viewer, who is pulled between the works’ opposing undertones and overtones.
Thus, art for my father was both personal and emotional. Close artist friend and former student, Roland Reiss, tells the story of my father and a group of his UCLA colleagues, including Richard Diebenkorn, Sam Amato, and Reiss, who gathered weekly over a period of months in a UCLA classroom to draw from “the model”, for which they shared the cost. On their first such session and after about fifteen minutes, Reiss relates that they suddenly heard startling, guttural sounds. Instantly, they stopped drawing and peered around, only to see my father gyrating his hands, arms, head and body in different directions simultaneously as the exclamations escaped from him, unconsciously. He was bursting with energy and emotion as his hand recorded his every response, moment-by-moment, to the model and to his developing drawing. Perhaps one could consider my father a ‘method artist’?
“A notebook of drawings is, in this sense, a diary of response. The surprising complexity of nature, our nature, replenishes drawing. Easy generalizations are dispelled as the hand moves with marvelous particularity in response to the feelings that direct it…
“…And the reason I think it’s important to [draw] even though I take photographs of things, too, is the photograph will bring me back to the thing that I was interested in, that subject, [but] will not put me in touch in the same way. If I make four marks, I can remember that. I can read my excitement in the marks. I can read my feeling about how I felt about it. Not just what it was, but a little of how I felt about it. And then maybe I can go on from there. And that’s something about the drawing.”
Whatever his subjects, they were inextricably bound to my father’s deepest experiences, feelings and observations derived from his relationships to himself, to people, to nature, to ideas, and to his experiences. His art is simultaneously biographical and broadly philosophical. As it developed, it became ever more refined and simplified, yet ever more complex. His final works relied on visual equivalents to poetic devices such as allusion, metaphor, juxtaposition and simile, etc., increasing the economy of his expression while also its depth. This is especially true in his pictograms. Thus, the formal elements of his work were consciously selected, not to create a ‘brand’ or ‘signature’ style as such, but to allow each work to express its particular theme and emotional/physiological condition effectively, an approach that seems unique when compared to many other modernists.
While his love of art was personal, it was not private. Without drawing attention to himself, he was a public actor on behalf of art in Los Angeles, volunteering for art jury panels, duties at Los Angeles museums, and befriending many of the most notable artists from California, New York and the world. His home in Los Angeles was a way station for many visiting artists. He was frequently invited to artists’ studios to discuss their work, he socialized with them and attended their exhibitions not only for openings, but to frequently return to truly see ‘the show’. Over his 38-year teaching career at UCLA, many former students have said that he was the reason they came to UCLA. He was a beloved teacher to many of the next generation’s most gifted and prominent Los Angeles artists, several of whom went on to develop national and international reputations. Many former students have followed in his footsteps and developed notable teaching careers in art and while making their own art. Simultaneously, he worked quietly behind the scenes with different factions inside and outside of UCLA to develop its art department into one of the top rated art schools in America. At the end of his life, he worked with the J. Paul Getty Museum staff on behalf of the Ray Stark Revocable Trust to install the Fran and Ray Stark Sculpture Collection at the Getty Museum, recognized as one of ten best great sculpture gardens in the world.
Like much of his work, my father was a man of contrasts: he was extremely articulate, erudite, and intellectual—yet intensely emotional and passionate. He had great energy and drive and yet reveled in his solitary, meditative journeys into art and nature. He could be acutely formal, obsessively comprehensive and voluble—or, alternately, pithy. He kept his work extremely private, yet, socially, he was gregarious, entertaining, and outrageously funny. One quality, though, was invariable: his desire to help others. Those who knew him consistently use the words, “generous” or “gracious” to describe him within their first two sentences.