Thursday, 15 August 2013

Irene Rice Pereira, the 31 Women number 17; Her birthday is 15 August.

Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971) American artist, author, lecturer, poet, philosopher
I. Rice Pereira was a highly intellectual artist, who used the initial rather than her first name in an attempt to avoid the fact of her gender clouding the minds of those viewing her work. Her mid 1930’s social realist paintings and her later linear, textured and mysterious abstract paintings were not obviously gendered, but she felt that removing the issue of gender from the arena gave her work a better chance of being viewed objectively.  However she was an established artist by the end of the 1930’s so secrecy was out of the question, she was successful until the 1950s era of macho Abstract Expressionism, when her gender caught up with her. Like other women artists she became side-lined, but she went further to actively speak out against the abstract expressionist movement, consequently she was derided and almost written out of art history.
I Rice Pereira in 1938, when she
was one of the WPA artists chose
 for the 1939 World's Fair.
Photograph by Cyril Mipaas.

The issue of her age was another matter; she took off five years and was included in both of Peggy Guggenheim’s Spring Salons for Young Artists in 1943 and 1944 when she was already above the age limit of forty. Guggenheim’s records list her as being only 36 at the time of the 1944 spring show.

Actually born 15 August 1902 in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Irene Rice was the eldest of 4; she had 2 sisters, Juanita & Dorothy, both artists and a brother James, who became an accountant. They were a creative family, enthusiasts for literature & music and one of her uncles was a sculptor. Their mother, Hilda Vanderbilt Rice was an amateur painter who encouraged  her artistic daughters.

Dorothy Rice studied at the Art Students League, whilst the youngest sister, Juanita, studied under Hans Hoffman. She would become known as a painter under her married name of Juanita Guccione  Marbrook.  Irene herself was an artistic and highly literate child. She had an early interest in the occult and the American transcendental poets and she read Aristotle & Plato when she was twelve. This led to her deep creative engagement with the works  of Jung. She continued to read and study throughout her life, with particular interest in transcendental philosophy.

Irene’s father was Emery Rice, who had moved to USA from Poland as a child. He owned grain and bakery businesses and bred horses on his country estate until his death in 1918, leaving the family with serious financial difficulties which forced them to move to the city.  Irene, then age 16, completed her studies at Brooklyn District High School in record time and became a stenographer to help with the family finances.

She continued to work while attending night classes at various times in fashion design at Traphagen School of Fashion, literature at New York University and art at Washington Irving High and studied at the Art Students League in 1927-8.  In 1928 she married artist & photographer Humberto Pereira, though this did not slow her down.  By 1931 she was in Paris and studied at the Academie Moderne under Amédée Ozenfant.  She also spent a short period of study with Hans Hoffman, who was an influential teacher long before his involvement with abstract expressionism.

Irene toured Italy, stopping in Milan, Florence, Venice & Rome.  She assiduously visited all the necessary galleries and sketched and painted before moving on to Morocco.  Although her  visit to the Sahara desert was a revelatory experience, on her return to New York in Jan 1932 her figurative painting style showed little influence of this; some time passed before the effect was to emerge.  Meanwhile her style and technique varied as she searched for her metier.  Always studying psychological and philosophical works, their meaning fed into her work, sometimes seeming naive as in her early nautical and machine paintings, later with increased lyrical power as her understanding of her own creativity and confidence with her materials developed.

By 1937 Irene’s parallel career as arts lecturer had taken off, she was an original faculty member of the WPA Design Laboratory, where she found the stimulus of mixing with so many and varied artists hugely liberating. The status she gained was also very helpful in establishing her reputation. Her art became increasingly inventive, probably peaking with her layered and textured glass paintings, which are totally original and what she is remembered for today.

Her marriage to Pereira ended in 1938, but she kept his name.  Two years later she lectured at Colombia University and she was to lecture widely until 1965, when her final lecture, ‘Art & Space,’ was addressed to the Artist’s Guild in Palm Beach, Florida. She married a marine engineer, George Wellington Brown in 1942, this marriage lasted until she fell in love with Irish poet George Reavey, who she married in 1950. He introduced her into literary circles which further stimulated her philosophical writing and her poetry.
Her art continuously developed, crucial works of her early period are two paintings, Man & Machine I  and  Man & Machine II.  Both painted in 1936, these pictures demonstrate the very brink of the disintegration of her use for realism.  In the first painting, two Rivera-esque figures struggle with heavy,  complex machinery.  In the second, with a decisive step over the brink towards abstraction (but also with a nod to surrealism), Irene has integrated the human and mechanical forms into a writhing mechanism which seems to fight against itself. In 1953 Irene wrote of this second version, “The machine as an anti-social force.”

During the late 1930’s her increasingly abstract work becomes harder to recognise as social comment. Early cubist influences gave way to her personal, linear style. She was a member of the American Abstract Artists for a time and her first exhibited abstracts were shown in New York in 1937. Although the obscure meanings of many of these works can be seriously explored only by reading which ever philosophical or analytical text the artist was immersed in at the time, she had no doubt as to their social relevance.
Irene was an enthusiast for Bauhaus design and philosophy, which she taught at the WPA. She became a friend of Bauhaus influenced architect Frederick Kiesler and his wife Steffi, well before he created Art of This Century for Peggy Guggenheim.  She first met the German born architect at the Art Student’s league and kept up a correspondence with him for many years, as she did with Peggy Guggenheim. Other long term friends included photographer Berenice Abbott, who she stayed with in Paris.  

Her first solo exhibition was in 1933 at the ACA Gallery, NY and she was continuously exhibited for almost 40 years. Her work appeared in nearly 300 exhibitions, at all the important US galleries including MOMA, until her death in 1971. The last exhibition during her lifetime was the 1970 Whitney Museum Annual, where I. Rice Pereira had shown regularly since 1934, but her work had fallen out of fashion.
She became increasingly embittered against many former friends and colleagues, convinced there was a conspiracy to suppress her work, both artistic and written.  She had some justification for this paranoia. Along with many of the artistic avant-garde at the time, I. Rice Pereira was politically active in the anti-fascist movement in the 1930’s and 40’s, but, in the paranoid era of the USA in the 1950’s this attitude became allied, in the minds of the blinkered, to Soviet Communism.  Her opposition to abstract expressionism was another factor used against her.  

Irene had health problems, necessitating a hysterectomy during the 1930’s and a radical mastectomy in the 1940’s which left her with some mobility problems in her right arm, inhibiting her painting, she learned to paint with her left hand. Breast cancer appears to have run in her family, her sister Dorothy died of it. Irene also had lung problems, developing into emphysema in later years, not helped by her smoking which was entirely accepted in her lifetime, most adults smoked.  This eventually caused her death, in Marbella, in 1971.

Understanding of the complexity of I. Rice Pereria’s art and philosophical thinking and writings can be greatly helped by reading Karen  Bearor’s  detailed and intensively researched monograph:-

Karen A. Bearor, (1993) Irene Rice Pereira – her Paintings and Philosophy  - American Studies Series, University of Texas, published 1993.


You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog. Just click the 'Project 31 Women' label below to see the others.


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