William Brice’s Surprising Journey in Art

Artist, Tom Wudl with two Brice paintings, Rock Composition I and Rock Composition III, produced in 1947 when Brice was just 26.

This is the beginning. Here are the stones. And, what’s particularly poignant about this painting is that kind of deep devotion…this young artist has to this imagery. He’s not only looking at these stones…These are special.  We could say they have talismanic properties; they have a magical aspect to them, they have an incantatory power…Often in the very early stages of an artist’s work you can see the seeds of their maturity. And it’s almost as if, well, the seeds are there, the essential artistic personality has presented itself.  But then it has to go through this journey to maturity.

Tom Wudl, Artist,
Promise and Mystery, YouTube,
2011

Artists’ journeys differ greatly. Many find their “artistic identity” early and stick with it, such as Monet. Others, like Picasso, restless by nature, appear to construct and reconstruct their artistic identities multiple times over their careers. William Brice belongs to this latter group.

The Progression of Brice’s Styles and Moods Over his Eight Decades of Making Art

What’s interesting tonight is that you have one artist who looks like five different artists when you look at the different rooms and different stuff he does.

Jake Butts, gallery visitor,
William Brice Exhibition Opening,
LA Louver Gallery, Venice CA,
YouTube,
2010

As Jake Butts’ remarks describe, Brice appears to have reinvented himself in nearly every decade as his works moved through distinct periods of style and mood in Brice’s journey towards maturity and mastery. Yet, these “reconstructions” of his artistic identity are somewhat deceptive. At the core of his practice were consistent themes:

Time and relationships; time and memory; multiple concepts of time; harmony vs. alienation; permanence vs. impermanence; existence vs. non-existence; female vs. male energy, power, and spirit; procreation vs. birth vs. death vs. rebirth; beauty vs. putrefaction; and matter vs. spirit.

Intriguingly, one can find nearly all of the above themes in his early works as exemplified by his 1947 painting, Rock Composition III.  

For Brice, rock/stone were metaphorical paradoxes. Their abiotic substances seem permanent and eternal. But Brice understood the irony in them: These are sea stones, and so despite their hardness, their ‘permanence’, they have been reduced and rounded by the softness of time, water, and rhythms of the ocean’s tides rhythms.    

Rock Composition III, 1947 Oil on canvas, 11 x 16 in. WB47-0002

By the 1970’s, though, Brice had come to understand that these paintings were about more than just stones and the integrity of pigment.

He saw that he had intuitively been attracted to them as metaphors for how we as individuals, our relationships, and cultures are worn down and transformed by the currents of time and experience (a ‘time signature’). He realized that he had instinctively composed his stones to ‘congregate’ in clusters. They ‘drape’ and ‘lean’ over and against one another, suggesting biomorphic, intimate relationships.

One may also notice that these rounded sea stones cast rectilinear shadows that have nothing to do with the stones’ rounded forms (perhaps suggesting doppelgangers?). Further, each stone throws its shadow in a slightly different direction, indicating that the light source moved for each stone. Thus, simultaneously, the stones are seen together, touching each other, and so share the same space and time—yet due to their shadows’ different directions, each stone also, contradictorily, inhabits its own, separate time zone (a second ‘time ‘ signature’). The maxim comes to mind: “Alone in a crowd”.

Such simple and subtle depictions of disjointed time and relationships touch on Brice’s themes of harmony vs. alienation, permanence vs. impermanence, existence vs. non-existence.

William Brice’s Context

Brice was an outlier from modernism and abstract expressionism, and so from artists like de Kooning, Pollock, Kline and even Rothko, all of whom avoided the personal. In contrast, Brice’s art is personal, intimate, and introspective unlike his fellow post-war, “gestural” and “color field” painters.

Yet, in unexpected ways, Brice was a part of his generation and shared many qualities with these and other artists.

Like Pollock, Brice was essentially mythic and monumental. Like Pollock’s totem paintings, Brice too, searched for archetypal imagery which shared, at times, a sense of the tragic.

Like Rothko, Brice turned ‘internally’. However, Rothko avoided reflection on the actuality of daily life, while Brice took inspiration from it.

And like Pollock and Rothko, Brice’s paintings are invested with a sense of a heroic encounter with the cosmic void and even with the spiritual.

Untitled, ca., 1976, Oil on emery cloth on masonite, 11 x 9 in. WBNO-7606

But perhaps Brice’s true kinship lays with other outliers from the history of art, who could not avoid walking their own paths that meandered around their epochs’ mainstream fashions.

This group could be seen to include Matisse, El Greco, Van Gogh, Cornell, Zurbarán, Mike Kelly, and perhaps even indigenous artists including the pre-historic cave painters, for example.   All of these artists are marked by the clarity and purity of their vision.  Their works have the power of true belief, passion, and authenticity.

Origins of Brice’s Journey

The more one learns about Brice’s origins, the more remarkable is his journey.

Born in 1921 to the international superstar of stage, screen, recording, and radio, Fanny Brice—and so to great glamour, wealth, fame, and privilege—Brice grew up in fabulous, East-Side Manhattan brownstones and then a Bel Air mansion.

From birth, he was immersed in his mother’s social life—surrounded not only by the luminaries in all of the arts in the first half of the 20th Century, but also by the captains of industry, of finance, supreme court justices, presidential cabinet secretaries, presidents, and European royalty.

Young men in Brice’s position would have been expected to enter one of these lucrative fields. Had Brice instead chosen the arts, he would have been a natural to become an accomplished actor, director, or producer of stage or screen. Fanny “knew all the people worth knowing” as the saying goes. With her help and his intelligence, Brice would have been a shoo-in to enter any of these fields and to become a success.

Family portrait, L to R: sister, Frances, Fanny, and Brice, ca. 1928

That Brice instead chose to be a teacher, to foster others, and to be a painter, with the vagaries inherent in such a career—is enormously surprising.

But it is especially the themes at the center of this privileged young man’s practice that absolutely astonish.

As curator Howard Fox wrote, Brice aspired “…to intuit an anatomy of the world, an atlas of understanding the workings of human life, a cosmology of human experience, a metaphysics of human existence.”

Only a few notable personalities in history have turned their backs on wealth and privilege to instead serve others while embarking on a metaphysical journey to awareness.

By the end of his life, Brice had become a highly esteemed and sought-after professor of art, who supported students even in their personal lives.

He produced art over eight decades, was and is represented by acclaimed dealers in New York and/or Los Angeles, and has been collected by America’s most admired museums.

Even as he neared death in his eighties, it was a rare day that Brice did not produce at least some drawings, often, making them through the night and into the dawn.

 

Examples of Brice Art by the Decade

1930’s

Fanny’s Hollywood movie and radio career burgeoning, she moved Brice and his sister from Manhattan to Bel Air in late 1937. Then between 1939 and 1940, Brice returned to Manhattan, where lived with and again studied under his mentor, Henry Botkin, while he also attended the Art Students League of New York.

1940’s

Brice returned to Los Angeles in 1940. He served in the Army Air Corps until 1943 when he received an honorable discharge for medical reasons. Brice resumed drawing and painting, focusing on subjects derived from what had first enchanted him about Los Angeles: Its surrounding nature of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Pacific Ocean, and Southern California light.

Hence, Brice’s 40’s and 50’s paintings focused mostly on aspects of nature while his drawings concerned the figure in nature, and landscape. Themes of Rock and water, and of flowers in different states of decay were particularly addressed and hint at the contemplative and perhaps the spiritual.

Throughout Brice’s career, the theme of nature had a special and specific meaning for him as noted in the website’s Gallery of Themes, Motifs, and Processes.

1950’s

From his interest in hard stone and rock in the 1940’s, Brice’s attention was caught in the 1950’s by the delicacy of flowers and their ephemeral life cycles, continuing his intuitive interest in permanence and impermanence, birth vs. death vs. rebirth, and beauty vs. putrefaction.

As Brice distinguished, these works were not meant as paintings of flowers but as “flower-like paintings.”.

Later in the decade, landscape and lush figures combined with nature entered his work. They are depicted with a romantic sensibility but mixed with, or partially submerged in, darkness, literally and figuratively. His drawings focused much on portraiture using a wide variety of approaches.

1960’s

In the ‘60’s, Brice’s work made a decisive turn towards the psychological and expressionistic in its emphasis on the figure and relationships. His paintings increasingly became composed of blocks of color.  Longing, anguish, and alienation became reoccurring motifs.  Brice’s occasional tone of brooding in his fifties’ works seems to have escalated into a bleaker sense of foreboding in the sixties’, especially in his drawings.

1970’s

Brice’s mature period began in 1970, sparked by two events:

By the end of the turbulent 1960’s, Brice had hit a wall in his work and personal life. He escaped to London, hoping the change would show him a way forward. He remained stymied until just before he returned to Los Angeles when he saw Herostratus, an experimental British feature film whose innovative montage sequences showed how assemblages of fragments could create a mosaic of meaning and emotive impact without the need for pictorial justifications.

The experience provided a new syntax but the ‘words’ for it didn’t come until two years later when he went to Greece. There, Brice was inspired by the fragmented remnants of its temples and statuary that lay at his feet everywhere he went. He appropriated what he saw as personal icons which could offer viewers inherent associations and meanings. Doing so also helped him avoid the tyranny of the ‘present’ to address deeper, timeless topics and themes. These two trips combined to mark the beginning of Brice’s “mature period”, which continued to evolve until his death.

1980’s

In contrast to Brice’s psychologically anxious explorations of the 1960’s, his work from the 1970’s through the 1990’s approached his themes as philosophical inquiries while Brice continuously sought economy and concision of expression.

1990’s

2000’s

This is the last painting Brice made.

However, work in other media in the early to mid-2000’s suggests that a new groundswell of change was coming.

In the months prior to his death in 2008, Brice became excited about the fresh direction his work was taking and eagerly anticipated a painting exhibition of his envisaged, new works. He died before he could produce them.

However, from drawings and collages he made in this final period, we can begin to sense what his contemplated paintings might have addressed and looked like.

These works on paper below could perhaps be viewed as personal Persian carpets or mandalas. In some works, negative and positive space simultaneously create separate content. His final works often rely on formal visual parallels to poetic devices that make them visually simple while highly complex in meaning.

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Brice’s art offers a diverse, rich, and rewarding experience. He spoke several visual languages, sometimes at once in the same work. The purpose of the latter was to wrong-foot the viewer, but never for the sake of parlor tricks. Instead, they are visual manifestations or extensions of the contradictions and questions Brice found in life, in his subjects, and in himself. Unless viewers consciously contemplate what is before their eyes, they don’t see these visual paradoxes but simply feel them as some vague, dramatic tension. Brice happily accepted either response.