The Art of William Brice

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. 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.

Brice, age four, already showing his passion for drawing, ca 1925

While Brice’s essential artistic identity came in his mid-twenties, the path to it began with his love of drawing as a young boy. At thirteen, he asked his mother for art lessons and studied with the well-regarded, New York artist, Henry Botkin.  Botkin taught Brice drawing and painting fundamentals and took him weekly to Manhattan’s great museums and galleries. For the rest of his life, hardly a day went by when Brice did not at least produce some drawings. He noted to a close friend and fellow artist that the one thing he could not live without was making art.

Great Diversity of Style and Mood

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 this gallery visitor observed, Brice appears to have reinvented himself in nearly every decade as his works moved through distinct periods of style and mood. Yet, these seeming “reconstructions” of his artistic identity are somewhat deceptive.  At the core of his practice were consistent topics and themes that compelled him and informed his art:

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 these themes embedded in his early works as exemplified by his 1947 painting seen in the photograph with artist Tom Wudl above and to the right.

For Brice, rock/stone was a metaphorical paradox. Their abiotic substances seem permanent and eternal. But the irony is that they are sea stones and so their hardness, their ‘permanence’, has been rounded and reduced by the softness of time, water, and the rhythms of the ocean’s tides.

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

Brice commented that he was originally attracted to rock and stone as subjects due to their “tactility” and the “permeation of color” that was integral to the form and integral to the substance.  “They were the same thing inside as outside”, which Brice recognized as a rare phenomenon in nature. “Something that you could not separate.”

His process replicated this phenomenon.  Unusually for Brice, he painted these rock pictures with a palette knife, dabbing one speck of “pigment over another, over another, over another” to build up the pigment of his stones.  In 1986, during Brice’s walkthrough of his MOCA mid-career retrospective, he confessed that when he made these rock paintings, “I had no consciousness of any aspect of an associative implication of those rocks.  They were rocks to me.”

But by the 1970’s, Brice came to understand that these paintings were about more than just stones, integrity, and pigment.

He saw that he’d intuitively been attracted to them as metaphors for how individuals, relationships, and cultures are worn down and transformed by the currents of time and experience (a ‘time signature’).

He realized, too, 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 throw rectilinear shadows that have nothing to do with their rounded forms (perhaps suggesting doppelgangers?).

Further, each stone casts a shadow in a slightly different direction, indicating that the light source moved for each stone. There is the implication that each shares the same time and space, yet simultaneously and contradictorily also inhabits its own time zone (a second ‘time signature’). The maxim comes to mind: “Alone in a crowd”.

Such 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 sandpaper 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 even indigenous (“primitive”) artists including the pre-historic cave painters, for example.  These artists are marked by the clarity and purity of their vision.  Their works have the power of true belief, passion, and authenticity.

Examples of Brice Art by Decade

1930’s

In 1939 Brice, then age 18, returned to Manhattan from Los Angeles, where he had moved with his mother a year earlier.  There he would live with and again study under his mentor, Henry Botkin, while he also attended the Art Students League of New York.

1940’s

When Brice returned to Los Angeles in late 1939, he turned his attention to what had originally enchanted him—the city’s surrounding nature of the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, blushed with Southern California light.  He focused on rock and water.  His handling of them hints at the contemplative and perhaps the spiritual. As Brice’s career developed, elements of nature took on special and specific meanings for him, as the website addresses under Gallery/Themes, Motifs, and Processes.

1950’s

Brice sensed that his exploration of hard stone and rock seemed to have run its course by the early 1950’s. As he cast about for what to do next, his attention was suddenly caught by the ‘overnight’ blooming of a home rose garden. He was instantly struck by the beauty and delicacy of the rose flowers and yet, poignantly, by his awareness of their short life cycles—a continuation of his still intuitive interest in permanence vs. impermanence, etc.  As Brice clarified, these works were not meant as paintings of flowers but as “flower-like paintings”.  Later in the decade, nature, and the figure in nature entered his work, often with a romantic sensibility but mixed with a sense of darkness and brooding. His drawings focused much on portraits in this decade. He employed a variety of different approaches that appear unique to each sitter’s ‘spirit’ and his response to it.  See “Drawings 1950s”.

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

In contrast to his psychologically anxious explorations of the 1960’s, Brice’s ‘70’s, ‘80’s and ‘90’s works approached his themes not as expressions of them but, first, as philosophical and then as metaphysical inquiries of them while he continuously sought increased economy and concision of articulation.

1980’s

1990’s

2000’s

This is the last painting that Brice made, but works in other media of this time suggest that another swell of change was coming.

In fact, Brice shared his excitement over the fresh direction his work was taking with his dealer, Peter Goulds, and both eagerly anticipated a painting exhibition of his envisaged, new works.  Unfortunately, Brice died before he could produce them.

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

The 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.  These final works often rely on formal visual parallels to poetic devices that make them visually simple while being 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 seems to be to wrong-foot the viewer, but never for the sake of parlor tricks.

Instead, they appear to be visual manifestations or extensions of the contradictions and questions Brice found in life, 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.