Irene Rice Pereira was the first child born to Emery and Hilda Vanderbilt Rice in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In her early childhood, Pereira lived in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where her father ran a bakery and raised horses. His business later failed and the Rice family returned to Boston around 1910 and then moved to Brooklyn the following year. With the death of her father around 1918, Irene was forced to switch from an academic to a vocational track and began work as a secretary to assist her family.
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By 1927 Pereira was working as a designer and earning enough money so that she was able to indulge in a new interest: art. Taking night classes at the Art Students League, she was greatly influenced by the teachings of Jan Matulka. In 1931 Irene Rice Pereira traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Modèrne under Amedée Ozenfant, traveling throughout France, Italy and North Africa during her stay in Europe.
Irene Rice Pereira returned to New York in 1932 and began to produce a number of Modernist-style oils using anchors, ventilators and machines as their focus. The subjects were directly influenced by the long hours Pereira spent sketching during her trans-Atlantic voyages. Works from this series were exhibited in her first solo exhibition at ACA Gallery in 1933. In her 1934 and 1935 ACA exhibitions Pereira showed paintings that incorporated semi-abstract figures into machinery settings.
In 1937 Pereira painted her first purely abstract paintings, as a result of her interest in both the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivist movements. These works were exhibited at the East River Gallery. Pereira used the textures in her paintings to create light vibrations of changing speed and intensity, finding that pigment freed from its representational tasks could produce luminosity.
Pereira was given a further boost when the Federal Art Project of the WPA created the Design Laboratory, a cooperative school of industrial design. Modeled after the Dessau Bauhaus, the Design Laboratory stressed experimentation with materials such as wood, metal, ceramics, glass, plastic, and textiles. Pereira helped develop the Design Laboratory and was a teacher there until it was privatized by the WPA in 1939. Pereira also worked for the Easel Division under the Project until 1939.
In 1939 Pereira first started painting on parchment, plastic and glass in an effort to create three dimensional depth in her works by using their transparent properties. Pereira was assisted with her glass endeavors through the WPA, as artists in the Stained Glass Division provided her with technical assistance. Her first oil on glass painting, dated 1939, started off as a design for a window. Instead of individual segments connected with lead, Pereira painted her motif on the back of the glass and then encased it in a shadow box, thus creating a picture rather than a window. Such glass paintings had antecedents in Duchamp, Kandinsky, Albers, and Moholy-Nagy, but Pereira's glass paintings were unique attempts to show both light and time, as the first physical representation of the fourth dimension. Pereira withdrew from the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project and left the privatized successor of the Design Laboratory to join the American Abstract Artists in 1939 to gain more frequent exhibition opportunities.
The 1940s saw a further maturation of the artist's work, recognized in 1940 by the Museum of Modern Art's purchase of Pereira's third oil on glass painting, entitled Shadows on Painting, 1940. She was deeply stirred by new concepts of matter, energy and space, and in 1943 Pereira's work began to exhibit a deeper sense of space and much more complex designs. Maze-like, or window-like, designs created depth on the flat surface of the canvas, while different colors juxtaposed in her compositions were used to indicate space, matter and time. These developments in Pereira's repertoire attracted museum attention, and both the Newark Museum and the Metropolitan Museum purchased her work in 1944 and the Museum of Modern Art included her in their 14 Americans exhibition in 1946, which opened at MoMA in September then traveled across the country.
Through the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, Pereira continued to refine her skills as an artist and to create ever more complex paintings. In 1952 she married the Irish poet George Reavey and the couple settled in Manchester, England. Although Pereira had a successful exhibit that year at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, the gray, rainy weather of England was not to her liking. In 1953 the couple moved back to New York, where Pereira not only continued a successful artistic career, but also became an accomplished poet and author, publishing ten books of poems and essays, including The Nature of Space: A Metaphysical and Aesthetic Inquiry, 1956. As abstraction came to dominate the artistic community of America in the 1950s, Pereira continued to enjoy much success as a painter. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a major exhibition on Irene Rice Pereira and Loren MacIver curated by John I.H. Baur in 1953. In the late 1950s, Pereira began to focus more energy on her writing and poetry, although she continued to paint until her death in 1971.