Pereira, Irene Rice (1902–1971)

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Pereira, Irene Rice (1902–1971)

Twentieth-century American modernist painter, poet, and essayist. Name variations: I. Rice Pereira. Born Irene Rice in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on August 5, 1902; died in Marbella, Spain, on January 11, 1971; daughter of Emanuel (known as Emery) Rice (a baker and businessman) and Hilda Vanderbilt Rice; married Humberto Pereira, in 1929 (divorced 1938); married George Wellington Brown, in 1942 (divorced 1950); married George Reavey, in 1950 (divorced 1959).

Enrolled in art classes at the Art Students League, New York (1929); traveled through Europe (1931); traveled in North Africa (1932); gave first solo art show, American Contemporary Arts Gallery, New York (1933); was a member of the fine arts faculty, the Federal Arts Project Design Laboratory (1936); painted on glass (1939–52); diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent mastectomy (1943); was a sponsor of the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City (1949); published philosophy, "Light and the New Reality," in Palette (1952); was the subject of a Whitney Museum retrospective exhibit (1953); converted to Roman Catholicism (1963); received an honorary doctorate from the Free University of Asia, Karachi, Pakistan (1969).

Selected writings—all self-published:

The Transformation of "Nothing" and the Paradox of Space (1953); The Nature of Space, a Metaphysical and Aesthetic Inquiry (1956, reprinted by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1968); The Lapis (1957, reprinted by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1970); Crystal of the Rose (1959); The Transcendental Formal Logic of the Infinite: Evolution of Cultural Forms (1966); The Finite versus the Infinite (1969); The Poetics of the Form of Space, Light and the Infinite (1969).

Until recently, modernist painter Irene Rice Pereira was one of the forgotten women of 20th-century American art. For a 20-year period from 1933 to 1953, Pereira was a cutting-edge figure in abstract art whose work was widely praised and regularly exhibited in major galleries, including a 1953 retrospective exhibit at the prestigious Whitney Museum of Art in New York City. Yet in the years that followed, her formal and impersonal style of abstract painting fell out of critical favor, displaced by the abstract expressionist movement to which Pereira objected. By the time of her death in 1971, she had become a marginal figure whose work no longer received critical attention.

The details of Pereira's early life are poorly known, due in part to her reticence and in part to her habit of fabricating her past. She was not, for example, born in 1907 as she always claimed, but on August 5, 1902, in Chelsea, Massachusetts, the eldest of four children of Emery Rice and Hilda Vanderbilt Rice . Emery was a Polish emigrant who had arrived in America as a child. Hilda was a native Bostonian of Dutch and German descent. During Irene's childhood, the family moved from the Boston area to Pittsfield and then to Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where her father owned a bakery and raised horses. Irene appears to have received her artistic bent from her father's family, which included musicians, composers, and one sculptor. Emery himself collected fine porcelain, had a taste for fine clothes, and associated with a bohemian crowd he called "gypsies." That he bestowed the sobriquet "gypsy" on Irene may indicate a recognition of their temperamental similarities. By contrast, Pereira described her mother as "very, very formal." The children of the Rice household, she later recalled, played little but dedicated themselves to horses and reading. Pereira devoured Alcott, Austen, and Thackeray, and even tried her hand at writing a biography of Joan of Arc .

When Pereira was seven or eight, her father's business failed, and after returning briefly to Boston the family finally settled in Brooklyn, New York. Their fortunes took a further downhill turn in 1918 with the death of Emery. Though Irene was just 16, the family's desperate financial position required that she switch from an academic to a vocational curriculum in high school, which she completed in the space of six months. She then found employment as a stenographer in an accountant's office.

The dream of a creative life, however, did not die. Pereira immersed herself in the bohemian culture of Greenwich Village and began to take night courses in fashion design and literature. In 1927, she followed her sister Dorothy Rice 's lead by enrolling in classes at the Art Students League. Here she was exposed to George Santayana's aesthetic philosophy, which explored the role of art in industrial society—a subject that would inform Pereira's artistic sensibility throughout her career. Around this time, she met Humberto Pereira, a commercial artist rather unsuccessfully pursuing a career as a painter and photographer. The two wed in January 1929. While they unquestionably shared artistic interests, Irene later confessed that she married Humberto primarily to gain independence from her family. The relationship does not appear to have been particularly close, and they divorced in 1938.

The year 1929 marked a watershed in Irene's artistic development as well. In October, she entered a class at the Art Students League taught by Jan Matulka, her first great artistic influence, who exposed her to the art and aesthetic theories of the European avant-garde. With Matulka and a dedicated cadre of other students dubbed "the Communists" for their fierce devotion to the revolutionary canons of modernism, Pereira studied Dada, Surrealism, German Expressionism, Cubism, Bauhaus, and, perhaps most significantly, Constructivism, a Russian-born style of non-representational art employing modern industrial materials in highly formalized organizations of mass, volume, and space. In her two years of study with Matulka, Pereira was encouraged to experiment with the Cubist style, and her compositions from the early 1930s exhibit a severe geometrical composition and frequent use of parallel lines and triangles, exemplified in her Portrait of Negro (1932).

In the summer of 1931, Matulka's protégés began to disband. Several went abroad, including Pereira who in September embarked for Paris, the home of the artistic avant-garde. Arriving there in October, she made her way to the prestigious Academie Moderne. What exactly she did at the Academie Moderne is a matter of some confusion. In the years following her return from Europe, Pereira would claim that she studied there, and at one point even asserted that she received instruction from the famous Fernand Léger—a point clearly contradicted by the fact that during her entire stay in Paris Léger was residing in the United States. Late in life, Pereira reversed herself and insisted that she only visited the Academie Moderne, where she found the quality of its instruction disappointing. Whatever the case, Pereira remained in Paris about a month, before moving on to Geneva, Milan, Florence, Venice, and Rome, where she drank in Renaissance art and architecture, all the while composing preparatory studies for paintings she would execute upon her return to the United States. In December, she sailed from Palermo to Tunis and traveled through North Africa. Pereira later attributed her fascination with light and infinite space to a transcendent experience in the Sahara, although her biographer notes that if so, the experience had no discernable effect on her work upon her reappearance in New York in January 1933.

While on the return voyage, Pereira had executed a number of drawings of the ship's machinery and tackle. These served as the basis for a series of semi-abstract oil paintings that she exhibited at her first solo show, held at the American Contemporary Arts Gallery in January 1933. The New York Times' art critic, Thomas C. Linn, favorably reviewed the show, commenting: "Here is a young artist who paints boldly and effectively in her large canvases, and with interesting color and whimsical humor in her smaller pictures. Although the marine subjects that Miss Pereira chooses for her abstractions may not interest all, many will recognize her skill." In fact, the subjects Pereira selected, and her treatment of them, were emblematic of the social and aesthetic preoccupations of the 1930s, with the rise of technology and humanity's questionable prospects in a world dominated by machines. Pereira's paintings of this period express a deep ambivalence about the promise of the Machine Age. If on the one hand her commitment to a modernist aesthetic inclined her to incorporate the geometric order and functionalism of industrial society into her art, her canvases betray a growing unease about the degrading implications of living in a world run by machines. In The Presses (1933), a small, marginalized human figure pays obeisance to the awesome technological power he supposedly controls; while in Man and Machine I and Man and Machine II (both 1936), machines actually seem to be dismembering the men who operate them.

In January 1936, Pereira joined the fine arts faculty at the Federal Art Project Design Laboratory, an affiliation she maintained until her resignation in October 1939. During these years, as the shadow of fascism lengthened, Pereira joined ranks with left/liberal artists who pressed their art into the service of the anti-fascist cause. Pereira began painting canvases in a social realist style—among them Struggling and Against War and Fascism (both 1937)—that conveyed an unambiguous, often heavy-handed political message. By 1939, she was clearly establishing herself among New York artists. In March of that year, she made the first major sale of her work. She also lectured at Columbia University on "New Materials and the Artist," beginning what would be many years of guest lectureships and appointments at colleges and universities around the country. And towards the end of 1939 Pereira began to paint on glass, a medium in which she would accomplish her most acclaimed works of art.

In October 1940, with her government-funded job at the Art Project Easel Division about to be terminated, she applied for and received a position as museum assistant at the new Museum of Non-Objective Painting. Pereira worked there until her resignation in September 1942 following a quarrel with the museum's curator, Baroness Hilla Rebay . In the same month, Pereira married George Wellington Brown, a naval engineer whom she may have met on her travels in Europe ten years before, and began teaching at the Pratt Institute. However, she was forced to resign from Pratt just four months later after being diagnosed with breast cancer, a disease from which her younger sister Dorothy had died a year and a half before. Pereira immediately underwent a radical mastectomy which successfully removed the cancer.

Despite these personal calamities, Pereira's creative energy hardly slackened, and her career continued to soar. Her abstract compositions integrated ever more of her intellectual interests in psychology, physics, alchemy, and occult philosophy. Her paintings, like Self-Portrait (1943), increasingly plumbed the depths of the human unconscious by deploying a universal symbolic language drawn from Jungian psychology. In 1948, Pereira herself began to undergo Jungian psychotherapy, a transformative experience she creatively joined with the alchemical idea of the transmutation of substances. Her abstract studies of light and infinite space, especially, played off modern physical and cosmological theories of four-dimensional space-time. Some of Pereira's best-known works created a sense of indefinitely deep space and of pervasive light by superimposing panels of corrugated glass painted with an intricate web of intersecting lines, exemplified by Undulating Arrangement (1947).

Pereira's preoccupation with the theoretical ideas underlying her abstract compositions intensified after she met the Irish Surrealist poet George Reavey in August 1949. Pereira and husband George Brown had separated earlier that summer, and upon her return from a trip to Paris in November she and Reavey became lovers. The following summer, Pereira received a divorce from Brown, and in September 1950 she and Reavey were married in London. The couple took up residence in Salford, near the University of Manchester where Reavey held a professorship. Evidently Pereira found the long and gloomy northern English winter dismal, and life in postwar Britain, with its continued rationing of consumer goods and grim reminders of war, depressing. She longed for the sun and the creature comforts of America, and so returned to the U.S. in May 1951, taking a position at Ball State Teachers' College.

My work, as I see it, is a search to apply the concepts of our time to esthetics.

—I. Rice Pereira

To judge by their correspondence when apart, Reavey and Pereira excited each other's interests in occult philosophies and mystic wisdom. Reavey introduced Pereira to Neoplatonism, whose stress on light resonated with her own aesthetic predilections and seemed to prefigure its central role in the 20th-century physical theories to which she understood her work as giving artistic expression. He also encouraged her to draft and publish her philosophy of light, art, and modern experience, which eventually appeared under the title "Light and the New Reality" in Palette (1952). This essay, and the writings that followed, which she had to self-publish, represented a bid for an intellectual preeminence in the academic world of arts and letters to which Pereira was not remotely equal, as was painfully clear even to her friends and supporters who urged her to stick to painting. Her prose style was pretentious, her thinking unsystematic, her ideas ultimately incoherent. One of her younger friends remarked how strange it was that when she described her work verbally "[h]er explanations were concise and simple" whereas in print "her words [were] so strangely elaborate; they seemed to have no relation to the conversations I remembered." A critic complained less generously that the philosophical explanations Pereira provided for her paintings "seek to inflate a very little into a whole lot."

The retrospective exhibit of Pereira's work that the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted in the winter of 1953 marked the crowning moment of her career. Thereafter, her star steadily declined. She abruptly stopped producing the painted-glass studies of light and space that had brought her such prominence, and returned to explorations of depth on a flat canvas using "Z" figures, a motif that was not well received critically. Her "philosophy" was derided and then ignored. Moreover, Pereira's style of formal, impersonal abstraction, inspired by European movements of the '20s and '30s, was under challenge by the new American style of Abstract Expressionism. Pereira found herself under political suspicion for having communist affiliations and under artistic threat for having stylistic and intellectual allegiances to foreign masters. She intensified her isolation, however, by distancing herself from the Abstract Expressionists and condemning them. In a letter to The New York Times published in 1955, she declared: "In my opinion, it is futile to try to define this style of painting in terms of art. When painters eliminate values, space and dimensions from experience there is no aesthetic." Her attack, however, was of no import; she was first ignored by the artistic world and then quickly forgotten by the avant-garde.

Pereira continued to lecture, exhibit, and write throughout the 1950s and 1960s, though she never regained her former prominence. At the end of 1955, she left Reavey; they divorced four years later. In 1963, she converted to Roman Catholicism. In her final years, she developed a highly inflated self-image, denying the influence of previous artists on her work and claiming, in her private notes at least, that she stood "alongside of Descartes, Copernicus, Newton, Plato." By 1970, when the Whitney devoted an exhibition to women artists, a canvas by Pereira was greeted by The New York Times' critic with pleasant surprise, "after not seeing her work for a long time." Pereira did not see the occasion, however, as a chance to celebrate the contributions of women to American art: "My work stood on its own. Whatever trouble I had came from other women." This was to be her last public statement; she died of emphysema on January 11, 1971, in Marbella, Spain.

sources and suggested reading:

Bearor, Karen A. Irene Rice Pereira: Her Paintings and Philosophy. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993.

Golemba, Beverly E. Lesser Known Women. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1992.

Lawter, Estella. Women as Mythmaker: Poetry and Visual Art By Twentieth Century Women. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1984.

The New York Times. January 22, 1933; May 1, 1955; December 27, 1970.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Schwartz, Therese. "Demystifying Pereira," in Art in America. October 1979, pp. 114–119.

Suzanne Smith , freelance writer, Decatur, Georgia

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Pereira, Irene Rice (1902–1971)

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