William Brice

The artist William Brice died in 2008. He was a painter who picked up the pieces of early twentieth century art in his own tender way. Todd Baron wrote in Art Issues in 1990, “Brice’s repeating motifs enable them to be read as serial poems, in which reciprocal relations construct a myth. The rose that hovers is a focusing voice, evidence of personal sight.”

Brice was born in 1921 in New York City. He grew up in a heady cultural atmosphere. His parents were the comedian Fanny Brice and the gambler Jules “Nicky” Arnstein (the subjects of the movie “Funny Girl”.) Composers George and Ira Gershwin were frequent guests at his parents’ home along with a revolving cast of Broadway luminaries and characters. When William was 16 the family moved to Los Angeles.

Brice studied at the Choinard Institute of Art in Los Angeles, and at the Art Students League in New York City. He had his first solo show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in the 1947. He started showing at the L.A. Louver Gallery in the eighties. L. A. Louver represents his estate.

Brice taught painting and drawing at UCLA from the fifties until the nineties, when he became an emeritus professor. He was a mentor to Judy Chicago among other notable artists. Charles Garabedian, a former student, told the Los Angles Times, “He was a great teacher, very involved in helping his students find out where and what they wanted to be.”

A trip to Greece around 1970 had a strong influence on Brice's art. The energy of the scattered architectural and sculptural ruins stuck in his head and led him to cultivate a fragmentary quality in his work. Broken stone figures, pillars, and stacked stones all became regular features.

Along with architectural elements, a constant motif in Brice’s work is a gentle erotic symbolism. Massive phallic shapes sit politely by stony vaginal monoliths. This work does not refer much to sex in real time, but rather to sexual archetypes. These are endearingly homemade archetypes that quiver and act a little shy to convince us they are real.

The monumental quality of Brice’s work comes as much from the solemn pacing in his technique as the subject matter of big rocks and crumbling statuary. His surfaces are broken up in a way that makes you slow down to see them, to follow them. In a 1985 interview at Crown Point Press he said, “Sense of scale does not depend on the proportional relationship of forms. It also has to do with the way the surface is experienced. One of the determinants of scale is time. How long it takes to get from one place to another… I think my elaboration of surface has to do with a quality of time.”

When Brice was the subject of a career retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1986, William Wilson, writing for the Los Angeles Times wondered how Southern California, the land of “Disneyland, surfers, Valley Girls and Hollywood boys” could be the source of a “refined art that floats in the realm of timeless tasteful classic modernism like a white cat who lives in a museum.” Southern California is where people go to dream about things, and William Brice was a fluent dreamer. Brice’s work is held in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

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