Brian Rice photographed by Oli Green
He may have hung out with David Hockney, Peter Blake, Peter Sedgely and Derek Boshier, all of them architects of a zeitgeist wave of commercial abstract art which swept through the Sixties but don’t call Brian Rice a pop artist, a misnoma he dislikes. Yes he flirted with Pop Art for all of three weeks but then he decided it wasn’t for him and destroyed everything he made (bar one painting of an ex-girlfriend, Portrait of Monica, which she still has half a century later).
And this determination to always strike his own path, characterises a 60 year career which the artist is celebrating with a retrospective at The Art Stable in Child Okeford and a beautiful book, a Catalogue Raisonne : Brian Rice Paintings 1952-2016
A born and bred Dorset boy, Rice grew up just outside Yeovil and came back home in the 80s, still living there today on a smallholding near Chard. He studied at Yeovil School of Art before arriving onto the London art scene in 1960 with the likes of Hockney and Boshier, ‘we were working class kids and we came with very different attitudes.’
Above: Drawing for Painting No 6, 1963
Partly the change was due to a new act which, for the first time, made university education accessible to everyone.
Rice says: “Until then it was really only the middle class with private incomes or those children of the artistic hierarchy, the Nicholsons or the Johns, who were able to think of going to art school and having a career as a painter.’
Despite early recognition, Rice became a teacher at a boys’ school and painted in his spare time. The lightbulb moment came during a trip hitchhiking across Morocco with two fellow artists.
‘We sat on the roadside for hours waiting for lifts, drawing with charcoal on cheap wrapping paper we’d bought and it was then that I realised, this is what I want to do. And I can be a gardener or a roadsweeper, it doesn’t really matter what I do to support myself so long as I can paint.’
Although Rice went on to lecture at Brighton Polytechnic, throughout his career he would only commit two days a week to teaching, the rest of the time (a ferocious work ethic, daily twelve hour stretches in the studio) was dedicated to art.
In many ways Rice, Blake, Hockney et al were precedents for the Young British Artists (Hirst, Wearing, Emin) who exploded into public consciousness in the late 80s.
Two Joining 1961
In the same way, their world, Swinging London, was a combined force of artistic talent, not just artists but fashion designers, photographers, models and musicians. In his rock and roll years Rice was friends with musicians like the Stones, dated pop singer PP Arnold and the fashion designers Marion Foale and Sally Tuffin.
But, characteristically self aware, he knew the rock star hours were not for him.
‘I’ve always needed to be in the studio by nine,’ he says.
During the Sixties Rice was best known for his intensely coloured geometric screen prints - he often describes himself as a painter who makes prints - and his work was everywhere. He became interested in collage, buying up games of Tiddly Winks and Ludo from the Portobello Road and using the counters for his new multi-form paintings. He also moved into advertising, creating iconic images like the White Horse Whisky ad (a horse stands at the bar with two glamorous drinkers, shades of Mad Men to the modern eye).
In the late 60s Rice was regularly grouped with the other star artists of his time Patrick Caulfield, Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgely and you couldn’t open up a style magazine without finding one of his era defining images. His work also appeared in the films The Touchables and The Candidate.
Towards the end of the decade and during the early 70s Rice restricted his colour palette and began experimenting with variations on red, yellow and blue., a period which was more rigorously intellectual but left less room for artistic freedom. He also began a series of triangle paintings, which were exactly as they sound; each painting was made from 25 triangular magnetic shapes which could be moved around, encouraging audience participation. But a show of the paintings in 1975 proved a disappointment both to critics and to Rice himself. And now came another of those volte face moments: Rice quit painting altogether.
This is fascinating for someone so compelled to create, but at the same time, perhaps not surprising for an artist who has spent his entire career being true to himself. If his art had become boring and uninspiring to him, then he didn’t want to do it at all.
He says: ‘I just thought I can’t see where all this is going. I had doubts, I lost confidence.’
Around this time Rice bought a farm near Chard which had been built on a prehistoric site. He threw himself into farming and restoration and developed a an obsession with archaeology which still informs his painting today.
It would be a decade before he returned fully to art and in the 1990s his work became more textural and rhythmic taking inspiration from the deep marks in the Dorset landscape and aerial photographs of archaeological sites.
Today Rice's work is often evokes the 1960s geometric paintings; he says he is still influenced by Bauhaus and the Russian Constructivists.
Above: Zither 2016
The show at the Art Stable
(until 22 October) exhibits paintings and prints from the early 60s to 2016, a retrospective which shows the scope and calibre of one of the country’s most renowned abstract artists. Don't miss it.