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One of the early members of the American Abstract Artists group, Irene Rice Pereira’s work was significantly shaped by her efforts to merge machine-age materials with her artwork and ideas that technology, art, and philosophy could be brought together as a social function. Pereira strove to express the idea of infinity within the context of an increasingly dynamic scientific society. She articulated these philosophical theorems not only through her art but also through her writing, lectures, teaching, and poetry.

Born in 1902 in Chelsea, Massachusetts Irene Rice Pereira began studying art as a young girl, later attending the Art Students League in New York at night while she worked during the day to help support her family. Although she ultimately married three times, Pereira kept her first husband last name. Early in her career she adopted the gender ambiguous title of I. Rice Pereira in order to avoid the stigma of being a creative and working female. In addition to her artwork Pereira wrote extensively throughout her life, producing ten books of poems and essays. Near the end of her life she became Honorary Poet Laureate of the United Poets Laureate International, while in the United States she was recognized more for her lectures on artistic philosophy, especially those addressing structure, time, optics, and space.  Her travels in the 1930s to Europe and Northern Africa, particularly to the Sahara desert and Morocco, significantly influenced the development of the compositional style and aesthetic philosophy that would define her work as an artist, lecturer, and socio-political activist throughout her lifetime.

Pereira’s early works have at times been compared with the works of Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth because of her focus on industry coupled with her fundamentally abstractionist compositions. However, hers is a comparison that may be over-simplified. Pereira's motivations for depicting industry, and the ultimate trajectory of her technical and aesthetic development are radically different from the precisionist methodologies employed by Sheeler and Demuth.  The early 1930s for Pereira were taken up with the incorporation and interpretation of industrial values, which were then sweeping the nation. As the decade progressed, Pereira's sympathies with the industrial movement shifted to the social plights facing the average American citizen. In he last years of the 1930s, Pereira focused on social realist painting.

In 1935 Pereira helped found, and became a faculty member of, the Design Laboratory, an industrial arts school in New York City. Her work began to incorporate the abstract synthesis of functionalism, and the avant-garde theory inspired by the artist Dessau Bauhaus. In the 1940s and 1950s, already known for her use of vibrant colors, interlocking forms, and flat palettes, Pereira gained new artistic insight and recognition for her unique technical manipulations of light on glass and parchment.  She had spent two years as a museum assistant at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, where she experimented intensely with a variety of unconventional materials such as mica, string, toy parts, glyptal resin, sand, tape, wood, plastic, glass, trapezoidal canvas and parchment, box and electrified frames.  According to her writings, it was here that she began to believe that “symbols are essences of the properties of space.” [1]


Throughout the 1950s and 60s Pereira solidified her own voice both in her paintings and writings. Her abstractions of this period were a true reflection of her philosophical ideas combined with the technical mastery she had developed throughout her career. At the end of 1970, Pereira retired to Marbella, Spain where she died only a few weeks later in at the age of 69. A retrospective exhibition of Pereira’s work was held in 1953 at the Whitney Museum in New York City and her works are held by many museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Smithsonian National Museum of American Art, Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Corcoran, and the Norton Museum of Art.

Written by Hali Thurber

[1] Irene Rice Pereira; The Official Site