Recent works by highly respected L.A. classic Modernist William Brice grace the L.A. Louver Gallery in Venice. The exhibition offers locals their first good look at his work since a 1986 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The current spread of some 40 paintings and drawings puts one in mind of a philharmonic orchestra playing jazz with considerable verve.

The 77-year-old Brice developed after World War II as a heroic, somewhat anguished figurative artist in the circle around Rico Lebrun. His style evolved gradually, figures blending with Abstract Expressionist scale and Matisse’s vivid color. Results were kindred to early work by Brice’s friend Richard Diebenkorn, but you never mixed them up.

A 1970 Greek sojourn defined Brice’s later opus. His art absorbed a kind of Jungian, classical ancient world into the Modernist vocabulary. Figures grew architectonic while transmuting into abstract symbols. Subject matter in the ordinary sense was abandoned in favor of elemental themes. Now as then, earth, air, fire and water play in unison behind his central motifs–male and female standing for archetypes of the creative act.

All of which is too specific and ponderous to capture the experience of Brice’s new work. Its primary thrust is personal, so dragging in other artists’ names is silly except to establish ballpark reference points.

Matisse’s spirit remains, but now as embodied by his late, joyous paper cutouts. Brice has never before put this much emphasis on high-key color and flat form. Jacques Lipchitz is another familiar presence. Brice’s sensitive draftsmanship captures the sculptor’s monumental volumes with just simple uninflected-shape edges. What’s newest here, though, is a colloquial zing that brings Brice’s timeless world the beat of American argot, from Stuart Davis to Punk.

The shank of the show includes nine handsome untitled paintings, three as large as 12 by 9 feet. The most dramatic piece uses a black background to pump up color. Against the vertical format lies a horizontal shape, roughly rectangular, with green squares of slightly differing sizes in diagonal corners. Between meander organic, interlocking zones in blue and brown. It might decode as earth and water.

Above are three vertical motifs. One–blue and lavender–resembles a clamp holding two spheroids. Its opposite in reds and oranges is plump, curvy and symmetrical. Certainly this is Adam and Eve. Between them a red vertical stands erect, crisscrossed by a yellow bolt–just as certainly an orgasmic explosion.

And just as certainly not. Brice’s paintings compel the eye but resist verbal elucidation. They’re not cranky but insist on being read visually and philosophically. Evocation of primal forces says the work is about a basic creative drive. Their Olympian detachment tells us human procreation isn’t the artist’s central concern. The paintings themselves inform us that their main theme is artistic creativity.

As if to nail down this point, Brice–an unquestioned virtuoso–set himself a difficult challenge. All paintings appear to consciously run the risk of being boring. All are composed of two-dimensional shapes largely self-contained. They take no obvious advantage of standard devices for achieving illusionistic volume, deep space or interlocking drama. Formal elements tend to be isolated and self-absorbed. In a lesser artist, this would be a prescription for failure. But Brice uses less to bring off more.

Speaking of the old less-is-more cliche, the artist actually revised the tack of reductivist art to remind us that painting can still be something more than pure phenomenon or mere formality. The net effect of his astringent cocktail of sensibilities makes a place where the lyric meets the epic, energy confronts exhaustion, and rapture boogies with anxiety.

L.A. Louver Gallery, 45 N. Venice Blvd.; to Nov. 28, closed Sunday and Monday, (310) 822-4955.

By William Wilson. Copyright © 1988. Los Angeles Times. Reprinted with Permission.