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Obituary: Pierce Rice 1916-2003
posted June 30, 2003
 

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Pierce George Rice, an under-appreciated illustrator from the American comic book industry's early years who later enjoyed a successful career in classical art, criticism, and teaching, died of complications from pneumonia May 23 at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C. He was 86 years old.

Rice was a native of Brooklyn, New York. As a young man, Rice took the Major Arts course at Boys High and Saturday arts classes offered by the Pratt Institute. He later attended the venerable National Academy of Design at 109th and Amsterdam. There he learned under the noted art teachers Leon Kroll and Arthur Kovey. Rice responded well to that institution's European-influenced specialized curriculum, split between practical training that reflected the school's take on modern aesthetics and a wide-ranging educational program based on lectures and assigned reading.

In 1939, Rice became one of the nameless, facile craftsmen hired to churn out work across multiple comic book lines. Work in the comic book field may have seemed a strange choice for an artist with Rice's training, but a job doing art made the 23-year-old the first in his artistically inclined family to secure full time employment using his creative abilities. In addition, the subject matter of most comics was in keeping with the artist's lifelong fascination in the human form. Rice joined the Iger shop after answering a newspaper advertisement, but was fired for reasons unknown to the artist a few months later. Upon leaving, he set up shop with Arturo and Louie Cazeneuve, with whom he enjoyed a lengthy but intermittent professional partnership.

Rice began his comic book career drawing features for a number of publishers in quick succession. Rice would later recall that an early client of his own studio set-up was Fox, and that he enjoyed a long relationship with Harvey Comics, where he worked on such characters as Zebra, Green Hornet, Captain Freedom and Black Cat. But his work can be found in a number of magazines from various companies. Rice's art is believed to have graced features in the first several issues of Fawcett's Wow Comics in 1941. He also was one of the creators to publish at Centaur before that company ceased doing business in 1942. Other clients included Hillman and MLJ. Like many comic book artists of his generation, Rice was New York local and forged friendships and business partnerships with others in the industry. He told the Journal in 1997 that the time spent between his stint with Iger and entering the service in World War II was probably the happiest of his life. "There was something about the ease of the exchanges with editors and publishers, everyone was located within walking distance, having our own place… It made it extremely agreeable."

The United States Army drafted Rice in 1943. After a stint stateside pursuing various artistic opportunities within his regiment, Rice served in World War II's European theater during the Allied advance and for several months after the fighting had ended. He drew for the Seventh Army Newspaper in Heidelberg and saw a brief period of combat. He was a recipient of the Bronze Star.

After the war, Rice joined several hundred returning servicemen taking part in the flush years of the American comic book industry. Unlike many artists who had continued to freelance as military schedules allowed, Rice had severed his contacts when he entered the Army and had to rebuild his client base. Through Bernie Sachs and Arthur Petty, Rice began work at DC, where he contributed art to such features as Spectre, Crimson Avenger, Manhunter, Slam Bradley and Seven Soldiers of Victory. Other post-War clients were Hillman, Harvey, Ace, Standard, Gleason, Ziff-Davis, ACG, Eastern and Topps. Rice enjoyed a comparably long stay in the division of Martin Goodman's pulp publishing empire devoted to comic books, during its first extended run using the name Marvel. Rice worked in the Stan Lee-run Empire State Building offices as part of their post-war bullpen set-up, staying for close to two and a half years.

Rice eventually took room in another artists' studio, but the era he had enjoyed before the war had passed. "I moved in to 109 West 42nd St with Arturo Cazeneuve sometime in the sometime in the very early '50s," he wrote Jim Vadeboncoeur in April of this year, comparing his pre- and post-war experiences. "Bob Sale was established there, Bill Savage and Charley Sultan having just moved out; a photo retoucher was on the premises. $20 a month. Arturo, never very earnest, remained only a while, his space was taken by a furniture artist… Sale left, a newspaper cartoonist… came in at the same point as Bernie [Krigstein]. Mainly though, there was never the air of cordiality that prevailed at 415 Lexington Avenue where the two Cazeneuves and I held open house, enough company, in fact, passing through [to force] us to do most of our work far into the early hours of the morning. Louis Cazeneuve, now that I think of it, left to avoid the company, Arturo presently moved over to the Harvey office, and Charles Flanders moved in." A brief stop with Harvey's horror books in the early 1950s would serve as the end chapter in Rice's comic book career.

imageAccording to Vadeboncoeur, who has studied the period extensively, Rice was one of the more talented comic book artists of his day. "Rice was a natural storyteller with classical training and a firm grasp of anatomy and perspective," he told the Journal. "All too often these abilities were masked by the inks of lesser artists for whom he anonymously penciled -- but they couldn't hide those 3/4 rear shots with the elbows prominently thrust into the foreground. His love of comic art and his devotion to his craft was such that when I sent him photocopies of his work he'd done 40 years prior, he felt compelled to enlarge the copies and rework the panels he thought weak. He was an unsung master of the medium."

In his final days in comics in the early 1950s, Rice participated in an attempt to unionize the creative end of comic book production, a movement led by artists including Bernard Krigstein. Although only mildly interested in forming a union, and with a political viewpoint he later described as half-liberal, half-conservative, Rice produced a small mimeographed newspaper for the effort. According to an interview given by the late artist Gil Kane, Rice also forcibly argued against an editorial detractor at one of the organizational meetings - something Rice had a hard time remembering by the late 1990s.

In the mid-'50s Rice permanently relocated to the Washington D.C. area, where he lived in a city apartment for several years until finally settling in Fairfax Country, Virginia. His time in comics faded from view for all but the most dedicated and persistent observers, as he began to pursue magazine cover illustration, portraiture and various design projects.

According to long-ago D.C.-area comic book fan Gary Groth, very few enthusiasts bothered to recall Rice's run on various Golden Age titles. "He was decidedly not the local comic book artist for kids like myself. He was totally unknown; none of my fellow fans in the area knew who he was or even knew he lived there. In fact, I was completely unfamiliar with his work, as you might expect of a 15 or 16 year old Marvel zombie." When his parents noticed an article about Rice in a local newspaper and contacted the artist, Groth received a glimpse into Rice's post-comics life. "My Dad drove me over to his apartment in Washington and I spent two to three hours there. The fact is, I had no clue as to who he was or what he'd drawn but he'd been a comic book artist and that was enough for me. I remember his apartment as being fairly spacious, full of books and artwork on the walls. He was absolutely gracious and gentlemanly, patiently answered questions from me and conversed with my Dad while I listened. He seemed like a born educator - or explainer. He easily expatiated on subjects, seemed easy-going, and sure of himself."

In the second half of his professional life, Rice had indeed become a highly regarded critic and educator. He began writing critical art essays as early as the 1940s. Pursuing his own tastes in classical architecture and art as opposed to what he felt were the distorted values of modernism, Rice would become a founder of the Classical America movement in art and architecture, contributing to their journal of the same name when it began publication in 1971. He was also a friend of the movement's dominant personality, Henry Hope Reed.

Rice taught several classes at his alma mater and graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania. He never finished formal school beyond the Academy, and thought that academy graduates made for better artists than those who received a more standard education. He commuted to both schools where he taught. Rice typically lectured on favorite Classical America topics such perspective rendering and composition. The Philadelphia-based educator and architect Alvin Holm told the Journal that Rice's take on classical forms changed the arc of his professional career. "He completely changed my intellectual orientation and showed me another way of looking at things, a way that raised my skill levels in all areas. I took his course, and then I took it again, and I took it again - I took it four times in a row," Holm said. In his eulogy for the artist, Holm compared Rice to the esteemed Bauhaus-influenced educator Josef Albers, under whom he had earlier studied at Yale. "In 1978 I took Pierce's course in classical drawing and was astonished at how wildly different it was from the excellent courses I had had twenty years earlier. Josef Albers taught me to draw horses by looking very carefully at a horse; Pierce said, 'Forget the horse! If you want to make a beautiful drawing of a horse, study carefully beautiful drawings of horses. Then you can look at the horse.' Albers and almost everyone else at Yale taught us to be analytical, believing that discrimination was the whole goal, while Pierce Rice taught us to see the commonalities - those aspects of things which unify, that create a coherent world out of bits and pieces."

Holm went on to become a teacher himself, closely patterning his classes after those taught by Rice. Alumni of the Rice and Holm courses made up a significant number of the founders of and early contributors to New York's Institute of Classical Architecture, begun in 1991. Best known for its magazine The Classicist, in the fall of 2002 the Institute announced that it would be merging with Reed's organization Classical America and its popular Arthur Ross awards, educational initiatives, and textbooks. Both Rice and Holm continued to produce other educators, whom Holm feels are all teaching classes modeled on the original Rice courses. But no student could match the idiosyncratic mastery with which Rice taught. "He spoke in kind of an oracular way. He would look up in the sky, his eyes would go up and he would say something that was not intelligible frequently. Some times it would take to the next class week to sink in. He had amazing observations that were pithy and sort of infinitely expandable." Some of those comments displayed an appealing sense of art in all things.

In 1987, Norton published Rice's book Man as Hero: the Human Figure in Western Art, an historical survey of the use of figures in art broken down by category, as part of its Classical America Series in Art and Architecture. Man as Hero was noteworthy for the connections Rice drew between classical artists such as Michelangelo and Fragonard and illustrators like J.C. Leyendecker, John Tenniel, and Gustave Dore. "In the light of the most fundamental deficiencies of what constitutes art of the West, 19th century painting fails to qualify," he wrote. "But Tenniel (illustrator of Alice in Wonderland and Punch cartoonist), Daumier and Dore filled the specifications. Nor was this mere literal compliance with convention. Their individual powers were such that only the most brilliant names of the previous centuries are to be compared with theirs."

Man as Hero was re-issued in 2000, the crown jewel in Rice's published writing on art. In 1997 Rice contributed an essay to The Library of Congress: The Art and Architecture of the Thomas Jefferson Building, edited by Henry Hope Reed and John Y. Cole. J.G. Brown released a monograph of Rice's "J.G. Brown, the Bootblack Raphael," in 1979.

Rice never stopped doing art of his own. In Washington, Rice became a noted portrait painter and a respected designer. He received a commission from Philip Morris International to design a two-ton sculpture in the shape of the medallion. The bronze piece was installed in the company's New York City offices. A mural to which Rice contributed, portraying Theodore Roosevelt's sons playing in a White House stairway, is displayed at the National Museum of American History. In 1988, Rice had a show at the Susan Conway Carroll Gallery, and in 1989 his design placed second in The Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial design competition.

Rice considered himself an artist who stood on the shoulders of thousands of years of artistic tradition, and his friends say that belief helped provide him with a timeless view of the past. "He never left the comic books, and was always very happy to remember what he learned there," said Holm. "He would say the best figurative art is still in comic books. The best perspective artists - the guys who really know how foreshorten arms and legs - they all work in comics. A guy who draws Spider-Man, what he has to draw, it's just amazing to watch a figure tumble through the air. That artist draws things very few studio artists can. Pierce would say, 'They know everything. They know perspective, shade and shadow…' He never left them. He would come into class with pictures in panels, illustrating what we were going to be learning that evening. There's so many ways that the comics remained with him. Those days were immediate to him."

In Man As Hero, Rice wrote about Western art with words that the Washington Post chose to eulogize him. "The great tradition of Western art has been and should continue to be, not merely representational work but the idealization of the human form, the glorification of both heroic individuals and the heroic possibilities of mankind." It is a statement laden with meaning for the art movement in which Rice traveled, the hero-soaked comic book medium in which he worked, and, ironically, the publishing industry that failed to match his better impulses but that he never forgot.

Pierce Rice was preceded in death by a wife of 33 years, Marilyn Young, who died in 1992. His closest living relatives are Louise and Tom Krause, who arranged his burial 87 years to the day from when he was born.

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Originally Published in The Comics Journal #254