An extract from the essay Signs of Life: notes on Brian Rice’s work of the Sixties
Included in Brian Rice’s show at the New Vision Centre Gallery in May 1964 was the first of a series of modular paintings. Circle Square x 20 (1963) is comprised of twenty square canvases of equal dimensions, conjoined in four rows of five. Each is composed of concentric circles or concentric squares, and each is painted in a unique variation from a palette of black, white, red and blue. The canvases are grouped together so that configurations of squares alternate throughout with those of circles, the sequence interrupted where three circles are abutted centrally between two squares on the bottom row. The overall effect is one of endlessly pulsing light and colour, a kind of equivalent to the eye’s navigational shifts of focus within the visual cacophony of the city. In a series of works on paper, Rice went on to explore the potential of formal repetition whilst progressively making his range of colour more subtle and idiosyncratic. An example is in the watercolour study Fifty from October 1964, with its tilted squares set in intersecting diagonals. The artist also began to integrate within his works on paper mass-produced materials made from coloured card, paper or plastic; Tiddlywinks counters, bits of cigarette cards, printed flags and emblems, each selected for their inherent uniformity of shape and hue. Some he combined with watercolour or ink, whilst others he used more simply, as in Red White and Blue Collage (1965), a work solely comprised of a sheet of paper printed in uniform diagonals of red and blue over white, sliced into uniform horizontal bands, then rejoined, its diagonals now misaligned to create a rippling movement. Reminiscent of Ellsworth Kelly’s experiments in chance and juxtaposition from the early Fifties, it is both immensely simple and rather wonderful in effect.
Summing up his review of Rice’s second show at The New Vision Centre Gallery in November 1965, Eddie Wolfram stated, ‘Circles juxtaposed I suppose may be interpreted in the school pop tradition as targets of hoop-la. But Brian Rice’s celibate language has more in common with Noland, Stella, Albers and any consequential possibilities inherent in the rarified field of pure painting, than a mere membership card to a pop art discotheque.’  Wolfram’s alignment of Rice with the post-painterly Noland and Stella is pertinent enough, the artist’s “celibate language” implying a monastic calling in which life’s fripperies are given short shrift. The circles, chevrons and targets of Rice’s work indeed had nothing to do with Pop, and notwithstanding his interest in the co-relationships between the effects of shape and colour and spatial perception, his work is only tangentially related to Op painting. More germane are comparisons with the Situation artists Robyn Denny and John Plumb, and with those associated with the Rowan Gallery such as Jeremy Moon and Paul Huxley, all variously sharing Rice’s interest in geometric form, shaped or modular canvases, and the subtleties of colour, mass, and shape in figure/ground relationships.  Like Rice, Denny’s sources were in the urban environment, in the printed circuitry of board games and suchlike, alighted on for their compositional symmetry, scaled up and delivered in flat, hard-edged colour. These artists had in common a repudiation of English romanticism (including that of the landscape-based abstractions of the St Ives School). Each was to develop their own brand of the coolly detached classicism of Kelly, Noland and Stella.
 Eddie Wolfram, Arts Review, 27 November 1965. The work multi-canvas painting Metropol (1965) was illustrated to accompany Wolfram’s review.
 Situation was a show of large-scale abstract paintings by twenty artists, held at RBA Galleries, London in 1960. Like The New Vision Centre Gallery, The Rowan Gallery was important in promoting abstract painting and sculpture in the Sixties.
Extracted from the essay Signs of Life: notes on Brian Rice’s work of the Sixties, published in Brian Rice: Early Works 1959-1970 (The Redfern Gallery, 2014). Exhibition at The Redfern Gallery, London, 4 February to 1 March 2014.
Images courtesy of Brian Rice and The Redfern Gallery © The Artist.
Text © Ian Massey 2013