William Brice’s Surprising Journey in Art

Artist, Tom Wudl with two Brice paintings, Rock Composition I and Rock Composition III, produced in 1947 when Brice was just 26.

This is the beginning….[W]hat’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,

Artists’ journeys differ greatly. Many find their “artistic identity” early and stick with it, such as Monet. 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.

The Progression of Brice’s Styles and Moods Over his Eight Decades of Making Art

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,

As Jake Butts’ remarks describe, Brice appears to have reinvented himself in nearly every decade as his works moved through distinct periods of style and mood in Brice’s journey towards maturity and mastery. Yet, these “reconstructions” of his artistic identity are somewhat deceptive. At the core of his practice were consistent themes:

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 of the above themes in his early works as exemplified by his 1947 painting, Rock Composition III.  

For Brice, rock/stone were metaphorical paradoxes. Their abiotic substances seem permanent and eternal. But Brice understood the irony in them: These are sea stones, and so despite their hardness, their ‘permanence’, they have been reduced and rounded by the softness of time, water, and rhythms of the ocean’s tides.    

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

What initially attracted Brice to such a plain and modest subject as rock and stone?  He said it was 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. “Something that you could not separate.”  His process replicated this phenomenon.  Uniquely for Brice, he painted these stone 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.”

By the 1970’s, though, Brice had come to understand that these paintings were about more than just stones and the integrity of pigment.

He saw that he had intuitively been attracted to them as metaphors for how we as individuals, our relationships, and cultures are worn down and transformed by the currents of time and experience (a ‘time signature’). He realized 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 cast rectilinear shadows that have nothing to do with the stones’ rounded forms (perhaps suggesting doppelgangers?). Further, each stone throws its shadow in a slightly different direction, indicating that the light source moved for each stone. Thus, simultaneously, the stones are seen together, touching each other, and so share the same space and time—yet due to their shadows’ different directions, each stone also, contradictorily, inhabits its own, separate time zone (a second ‘time ‘ signature’). The maxim comes to mind: “Alone in a crowd”.

Such simple and 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 emery cloth 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 perhaps even indigenous artists including the pre-historic cave painters, for example.   All of these artists are marked by the clarity and purity of their vision.  Their works have the power of true belief, passion, and authenticity.

Origins of Brice’s Journey in Art

The more one learns about Brice’s origins, the more remarkable is his journey.

Family portrait, L to R: sister, Frances, Fanny, and Brice, ca. 1928

Born to world famous, superstar Fanny Brice, and so to great glamour, wealth, fame, and privilege, Brice grew up surrounded by not only the luminaries in all the arts of the first half of the 20th Century, but also by the captains of industry, finance, presidential cabinet secretaries, supreme court justices, and U.S. presidents.

Young men in Brice’s position would have been expected to enter one of these lucrative fields. Had Brice instead chosen the arts, it would have been a natural for him to seek to become an accomplished actor, director, or producer of stage or screen.

That Brice instead chose to be a painter and a teacher, to foster others, is enormously surprising.

But it is especially the themes at the center of this privileged young man’s practice—many of which border on the mystical—that astonish.  Only a very few notable personalities in history have turned

their backs on wealth and privilege to instead serve others while embarking on a metaphysical journey to awareness.

As curator Howard Fox wrote, Brice aspired to “…intuit an anatomy of the world, an atlas of understanding the workings of human life, a cosmology of human experience, a metaphysics of human existence.”

Brice’s art offers a diverse, rich, and rewarding experience.  He eloquently spoke several visual languages, sometimes at once in the same work. The purpose of the latter was to wrong-foot the viewer, but never for the sake of parlor tricks.  Instead, these visual contradictions are graphic manifestations or extensions of the contradictions and questions Brice found in life, in 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. Brice happily accepted either response.


Brice with his Grey Female painting, 1978 (WB78-0046), taken in Brice’s Van Nuys warehouse studio, 1978. This work is now in the collection of the Portland Art Museum.

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Public Collections

Achenbach Center for the Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco • Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA • Art Institute of Chicago • Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, CA • Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA • Douglas S. Cramer Foundation, Los Olivos, CA • Fresno Art Museum, CA • Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, UCLA • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC • Israel Museum of Jewish Art, Jerusalem • Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign • Laguna Art Museum, CA • Los Angeles County Museum of Art • Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC • Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY • Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles • Museum of Modern Art, NYC • Newark Museum, NJ • Oakland Museum of California • Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CA • Palm Springs Desert Museum, CA • Portland Art Museum, OR • San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, CA • Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA • Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska-Lincoln • Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA • University Art Museum, UCSB • UCLA Art Collection, Hammer Museum • University of New Mexico Art Museum, Albuquerque • University Art Museum, Cal State University at Long Beach • University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa City • University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor • Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC • Wichita Art Museum, KS