1986 Artweek/MOCA Retrospective

Untitled, a compressed charcoal drawing of 1976, gives us an essential key to the appreciation of William Brice’s progression as an artist. This year was a landmark in Brice’s career as an influential teacher and exhibiting artist in Los Angeles, a career that began in the late 1940s. In Untitled Brice “abstracts” a front-facing seated female figure into a directly stated schematization of components: head on columnar neck horizontal block of arm/chest/breasts, truncated torso/belly section, separate “genital” block, all enclosed within the columns of divided, drawn-up legs. In the decade that follows, many of these abstracted “units” reappear in Brice’s paintings, freely extrapolated, enlarged and separated, often depicted as freestanding sculptures floating in a field of color.

The modernist practice of abstraction, the dominant influence on painting and sculpture since the 1930s, stemmed from the radical pictorial approaches of Picasso and Matisse and the sculptural innovations of Henry Moore, among others. All of these important figures clearly exerted powerful influences on the esthetic directions of the young Brice. Abstraction enabled the artist to pursue a strategy of seeing the essence or the human figure, simplifying it and, with a freedom limited only by his imagination, reorganizing the composition in formal space with on minimal regard for illusionism.

Untitled also summarizes several of Brice’s contradictory esthetic ambiguities. The anatomy is both explicitly sexual and nonsexual; it becomes symbolic, idealized. Its depiction is particularized and universal, as impersonal as a hieroglyph and as specific as a photograph, though it eschews the tonality of the representational. Its graphic values are fluidly plastic, intuitive and, at the same time, as fixed as a piece of sculpture. Abstraction permitted Brice, both in drawing and painting, to coalesce several disparate tendencies, even when they contraposed or contradicted each other. One early source of creative impulse, evoked subversively and powerfully in drawings such as House by Stream (1956), was an individual expressionist angst, an atmosphere of psychological tension produced by a swaying, driven landscape. Ten years earlier, Untitled reveals Brice’s need for reduction, for a simple, lyrical and linear descriptiveness.

Brice’s achievements disclose the intensity and range of these several opposing directions and the artist’s effort at their reconciliation. His three-dimensional affinities, echoing the limpidities of classical Greek architectonics, people the canvases of his last decade. Most often these imaginary artifacts, memories of his anatomical concentration, are suspended against a luminous, neutral gray picture plane, a nonspecific landscape. They provide us with a vision of a serene, idealized haven, an esthetic utopia where primordial figurative artifacts or their fragmented remnants stand, enigmatic as history, suspended in a grid governed by sophisticated equilibriums. Often the sculptural shapes become monumental in scale, somber and cryptic. Enhanced with flatly stated backgrounds of primary color or suffused in clouds of mottled grays, they often recede from direct contact behind linear passages of overlaid abstract freeform figures that shift toward us from the formal picture plane.

As a colorist, Brice, having passed through an early period of Matissean organ-grinding, is typically restrained and subtle, though in the 1980s he has released this restraint and now works in broad swaths or straight colors. He has edged away from the monochromatic with measured attention and, since 1977, has permitted himself a growing personal freedom with resells that are spacious, impersonal and elegiac.

The paintings selected for Brice’s exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art signal a confident rhetorical ease that encompasses an occasional delicious serpentine wiggle, bold passages of transition, mottled luminosities echoing the artist’s youthful involvement with sfumato, cryptic but consistent juxtapositions, felicitous spontaneity of line and the free insertion of stylistic variations that signify an informed interpreter playing creatively and seriously.

Brice’s paintings, rooted from the beginning in the landscape and emotional tensions around him, have evolved into depictions of a platonic inner vision expressed in harmonious equilibriums, adequate scale and sure linear definition. They project emotional and spiritual acceptance as abstracted as a Bach fugue, rendered with a focused moderation of intent. We are presented with a world of calm harmonious order, enriched by luminosity of color and graphic energies, an informed world that Brice furnishes for our contemplation and quiet pleasure.