The Talk about William Brice: UCLA Art Dept. Shaper and Star Teacher
I was fortunate by personal inclination to find teaching appropriate for me…It was a way for me to do something that I really believe in very strongly, which has to do with participating in the continuity of art, the ongoing-ness or art. I felt very much connected, indebted to the persons who had taught me. When I looked at the work of artists, it was as if they were alive again, with me. And so, that sense of continuity was significant to me.
1986 MOCA Mid-Career Retrospective Exhibition,
For artists coming of age in the 1950s and ‘60s, Bill was a giant…[He] offered younger artists a window onto something bigger.
COMMENTARIES—In Order of Citation
Stephanie Barron: Senior Curator and Department Head of Modern Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)
Jascha Kessler, Ph.D., Litt.D., UCLA: Writer and poet, UCLA English language and literature professor, emeritus, and friend.
Chris Burden: Artist, UCLA professor of art
Roland Reiss: Artist, former Brice art student at UCLA, a teacher at UCLA, Chair of the Claremont Graduate University Art Department from 1971 to 2001, and friend.
Ed Moses: Artist, former Brice art student at UCLA, and friend.
Don Lagerberg: Artist, former Brice art student at UCLA, Chair of the Department of Fine Art Cal State Fullerton, Professor of Drawing and Painting, Cal State Fullerton, and friend.
Charles Garabedian: Artist, former Brice student at UCLA, and friend.
Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin: Artist, former Brice art student at UCLA (BA, MFA UCLA), Art Center College of Design instructor, UCLA instructor, and friend.
Tony Berlant: Artist, former UCLA student, and friend.
Brice—a Benevolent ‘Éminence Grise’—Sought to Refocus the UCLA Art Department from the Regional to the National and International:
Jascha Kessler, Ph.D., Litt.D., UCLA
I know [Bill Brice] brought Diebenkorn down (who had been a close friend of Brice’s since 1953 when they had been introduced by Brice’s friend, actor, and art collector, Vincent Price). [Bill Brice] said at one point, “We’re going to have Richard Diebenkorn. I mean, we gotta have him here.” [NOTE: From 1966 to 1973 Diebenkorn taught at UCLA. Brice and Diebenkorn considered each other best friends and frequently traveled together with their wives.]
Brice met David Hockney on the first day he arrived in Los Angeles, having been introduced to Hockney by their mutual New York dealer, Charles Alan. Brice and his wife came to respect and adore Hockney, and they remained good friends.
UCLA hired Mr. Hockney for a stint of teaching in 1966.
It was because of Bill Brice that I was hired by UCLA.
NOTE: When Richard Diebenkorn left UCLA in 1973, UCLA looked for a replacement ‘name’ artist. The replacement was Chris Burden.
The UCLA administration, including Chancellor Murphy, sought Brice as the next Dean of the UCLA Art Department:
[Bill] says, “They’re after me.” [I said,] “What do you mean, they’re after you?”
But I knew they were—from certain committees [committee meetings in Murphy Hall with Chancellor Murphy that Kessler sat on].
They said, “You know Brice?” I said, “Yes”. [They asked] “Would you accept him as a dean of such and such?” I said, “Of course, he’s very powerful, and is a skilled, intelligent painter. He’s not a simple academic.”
I said to Bill, “I think they’re going to ask you to be an administrator, a dean.”
He said, “I’m not going to go near them!” like that. “I wouldn’t have it for me!”—he was ferocious. “I will not do administration.” He would spend his time with graduate students. He’d drive around the city to see their work, but he wasn’t a big part of any administration.
He was ferocious about that. “Oh no. Oh, no!” [Bill] said, “I’d leave before I’d be an administrator!”
NOTE: Brice’s intense response is particularly noteworthy since Brice and Chancellor Murphy were social friends.
Bill Brice – the Man and the Teacher
Bill was a bona fide regular member of the faculty. He did all the committee work. He taught freshmen as well as the most advanced students… and he did it all really well … he was fully committed.
I went to UCLA because of Bill Brice.
[I decided to go to UCLA] because of Bill Brice’s reputation. A San Francisco friend of mine’s sister went to UCLA, and I would frequently be at his house, and she would talk about her time at UCLA. I was known even in high school as a guy who drew all the time and she said, “Well you’ve got to go to UCLA because of Bill Brice.”
He was a great teacher, very involved in helping his students find out where and what they wanted to be.
Bill Brice was brilliant, stunningly smart. I mean, there were two [remarkable] people that I encountered, one was Stanton McDonald-Wright and the other was Bill Brice.
I would say [Bill’s] was a towering intelligence, which is just really amazing. [He] never had any sense of superiority. Any subject that one would bring up with him, he would take one step deeper with his answer that then led to the next question.
Of course, he was a born entertainer. He was a raconteur. He could tell the best stories anywhere. He could do accents when he told stories.
So, he was fascinating to everybody on all of those levels. And he was highly verbal. Most of us modeled our teaching after him because he could say a lot about what the process was about. We were all impressed with that. A pretty great person to be around.
Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin
The thing that stood out for me in my recollections of Bill was his verbal command. He was able to articulate visual ideas really well. And I think as a teacher, in comparison to other teachers, it was just gold.
He had a deep insight into art, the history of art, and was really open to contemporary art, so we were all excited about that.
He instilled in us a love of art history. He had enthusiasm. He’d get us hepped up.
Bill was the only faculty member who had ideas and values beyond himself. He was tied to bigger ideas, including literature and film, and philosophy, but without being Guru-ish.
He was the only one I can think of who, if he’d read a book or had seen a film or a play that really moved him, would talk about it in class.
You hear from other people that he was quite inspirational in the way he would connect some of these things; you didn’t feel like you were just doing an art project or even something totally involved in self—it could be tied to larger things, into the nature of how stuff is. How things are.
Whenever I was with him, it had meaning. His life had meaning to him every day. And when he turned on the loudspeaker to the class or to me, it was just sort of diverting that stream to his audience, but it was very well organized.
He was charismatic and exceptional.
He was very warm, very giving. He was always fully focused…Beyond that he was a very generous man. He really cared about people. He actually had a loving way, a gentle way about him.…He helped me out of a lot of tough spots. I was so scared [a few times] and Bill just took care of it for me. I think that he went to bat for all kinds of people when needed.
He was a very elegant person…He just seemed to have a quality of a taste about him and a way of behaving and being in the world that was…quite beautiful. And I think a lot of us learned something from that—to be around, as young people, somebody who had those qualities.
I think I just discovered how to be a moderately elegant person in the world from him. I considered myself just like a lower, middle class guy who just sort of stumbled around in the world. And I met somebody who had really special refined qualities.
Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin
He was an inspiring example of pure authenticity. As a person, he was a very generous man. As a teacher, he was extraordinary.
He was so grounded and alive in his work. In the arc of time that I knew him, from my relationship as a student to one of an artist and friend, his lifetime of devotion to his work, even in the face of obstacles, has been the most powerful teaching of all.
He was certainly a model for intense commitment as an artist.
Post UCLA Friendships with Former Students
People who were his friends as students became lifetime friends. There’s a huge sea of people who all count him as the major teacher they encountered.
Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin
[After moving to Northern California in 1989] I would come down to LA for various gallery functions, openings…I would let [Bill] know, periodically, when I was coming to LA, and we would have lunch.
He always came to my shows, and he was always very supportive of the work, and in our visits that was what I treasured so much…even though my relationship to him was pretty distant and limited, I would consider in some sense he was—if I had a mentor, he was the mentor.
I knew Bill Brice had this place [his studio warehouse] ‘out yonder’ and he’d disappear. From time to time, we’d get together for lunch or go and see an exhibition somewhere. That was a great thing to do because he was an early hero of mine. He was very gracious as only Bill was. A most gracious person. And a most succinct person. But he didn’t send you with the moon with these insights. He just…let them out.
There is something really attractive about being “out yonder” …
…In Van Nuys! That was out yonder for us!
My first impression of him as a teacher was as the person who got me into Dick Diebenkorn’s class. In a way, Dick was like Bill in not wanting to be ‘on the scene.’ That’s one thing they shared in common. Bill also may have had the sense that you give up a kind of freedom when you become part of the crowd. If you don’t take your place with other artists, you really are independent.
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Sandra Mendelsohn Rubin
One universal truth has been expressed by all—Bill was an exceptional person. Some would say a natural, born star.