Abstract image of Washington, DC by Irene Rice Pereira.

Meet Trailblazing American Modernist
Irene Rice Pereira

By Margie Fuchs, with research assistance by Beth Hamilton

Irene Rice Pereira (1902-1971) personified the dynamism of the Machine Age over the course of her 40+ year career. Born in Massachusetts in 1902, Pereira grew up in Brooklyn, where the construction of new factories, skyscrapers and revolutionary modes of transportation transformed everyday life at break-neck speed. Her artistic vocabulary embraced the core tenets of Cubism, Constructivism and, most notably, the Bauhaus to capture the mechanizations of the modernizing United States. On the occasion of Jonathan Boos’ presentation of her rare painting Monument I (Washington), 1938, we invite you to explore the life and work of the early modernist.

Archival photo of Irene Rice Pereira, c. 1938.
Irene Rice Pereira, c. 1938. Courtesy Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

“The importance of abstract art lies in the fact that it is an experimental art,” Pereira proclaimed in a Columbia University lecture in 1939. “These artists are not concerned with literary documentation—but experimentation which conveys its influences to our architecture—our typography—photography—industrial design. It is an art which performs a definite social function.”

The artist spoke from experience: her own style had evolved considerably in the preceding decade. In night classes at the Art Students League from 1927 through 1931, she studied with the influential educator Jan Matulka, who introduced students to theories of the European avant-garde. Like many of her peers, Pereira was fascinated with the country’s expanding mechanization and embraced the beauty of industrialized objects, specifically assemblies of machine parts and tools, in her work. As the decade wore on, these straightforward still lifes progressed into complex Cubist arrangements. Informed by the bold hues of Italian Primitive painting and the dramatics of light and space experienced during her 1931 trip to Europe and Africa, Pereira’s depictions of machinery exuded exuberance and optimism. Works such as Machine Composition (1935, below), depicted simple metal objects as bold, overlapping forms juxtaposed against stark black and red hues.

This work by Irene Rice Pereira shows an industrial composition inspired by cubism
Irene Rice Pereira, American, 1902-1971. Machine Composition, 1935. Oil on canvas. 34 x 42 inches. Signed lower right

By 1938, Pereira’s style shifted towards a Bauhaus-influenced geometric abstraction, which she felt more appropriately expressed the modern age. She embraced the principles of the Bauhaus and Constructivism, movements that sought to unify artistic vision and mass production and synthesize mechanical objects into abstract forms, respectively, and began incorporating industrial materials like glass and plastic into her non-objective works. Pereira was a strong advocate for abstraction for the remainder of her career, a cause she addressed in her paintings as well as in her poetry and essays.

Monument I (Washington), 1938, reflects this shift in her artistic ideology. Unlike Pereira’s works from earlier in the decade, there are no identifiable machines in Monument I (Washington). Rather, the painting depicts a barren cityscape, identified through the titular neoclassical monument in the upper left and series of staircases in the fore and middle ground. While the orange and white biomorphic forms occupying the center of the painting intimate Pereira’s previous industrialized subjects, their curvature and muted color palette suggest the artist was drawing inspiration from the natural, rather than the built, environment.

Abstract image of Washington, DC by Irene Rice Pereira.
Irene Rice Pereira, Monument I (Washington), 1938, oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in. Signed and dated lower right.

Pereira conceived of Monument I (Washington) while visiting Washington, D.C. for the opening of her solo exhibition at Howard University in 1938. The temple-like façade of the building in the background echoes the classical architecture of the nation’s capital, including the monuments and memorials lining the National Mall. Consequently, the work has also been referred to as Washington and Greek Twilight.

An avid scholar, Pereira’s exploration of anthropomorphic forms sprung from the artistic and literary theories of Dadaism and Surrealism. She visited the seminal Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, encountering the life-like machines painted by Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. Fascinated by dreams and the unconscious, these avant-garde artists imbued their works with sumptuous forms that were neither representative nor geometric. Pereira was inspired by this alternative approach to modern subjects and soon began incorporating notably biomorphic images in her works, including Monument I (Washington) and the related painting Monument II (below). Monument II (alternately titled Congress) was also painted during Pereira’s 1938 visit to Washington, D.C. Aside from the incorporation of anthropomorphic figures, it mirrors the composition of Monument I (Washington) with various, gears, machinelike forms, and a Doric-style temple in the back left.

An abstract image depicting Congress in Washington, DC.
Irene Rice Pereira, Monument II (Congress), 1938, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., Private Collection.

Aside from the writings of the contemporary avant-garde, Pereira was keenly interested in the literary genre of the Bildungsroman. Stemming from the German words ‘bildung,’ meaning cultivation, and ‘roman,’ meaning novel, these coming-of-age stories chronicle the psychological and emotional growth of the protagonist. The main conflict in the Bildungsroman can be seen as the myth of modernity, with its never-ending quest for progress, clashing with preexisting conceptions of happiness. Pereira directly explores this tension between man and industrialized society through pointed juxtaposition in her paintings. In Monument I (Washington), the temple, a symbol of reason and order, stands in contrast to the anthropomorphic “figures,” which can be seen to represent absurdity and chaos. In uniting the psychological opposites of ‘reason’ and ‘feeling’ within the composition, the artwork evokes a scene from one of the most famous Bildungsroman, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain (1927), when the book’s protagonist has a vision of a temple and a bestial woman.

According to art historian and Pereira scholar Karen A. Bearor, “Although not as overtly indicated as in [Pereira’s] depiction of the artist reaching for the sun in the earlier Struggling, of 1937, both Washington and Congress could be interpreted as visual shorthand for the Bildungsroman…such a reading is reinforced by the elevated position of the temple facades and the inclusion of staircases for ascent in each painting.”

Irene Rice Pereira, Struggling, 1937. Oil on canvas. 39 1/4 x 49 3/8 in. Image courtesy of Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami.
Irene Rice Pereira, Struggling, 1937. Oil on canvas. 39 1/4 x 49 3/8 in. Image courtesy of Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami.

Pereira espoused the aesthetic principles of the Bauhaus as an educator at the Design Laboratory, which she helped found under the Works Progress Administration umbrella in 1935. The school’s modernist industrial design curriculum paralleled the Bauhaus’s interdisciplinary approach, with students taking courses in chemistry, physics, engineering, and the social implications of technology, as well as the fine arts. Following Bauhaus philosophy, the needs of society dictated the Design Laboratory’s program and students, with Pereira’s practice as an example, were encouraged to experiment in designing objects for mass production.

A significant figure in early American abstraction, Pereira was the first woman to receive a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1953, shared with artist Loren MacIver. Her work synthesizing Dadaism, Surrealism and the Bauhaus impacted the evolution of modern art and paved the way for the female abstract expressionists of the mid 20th century.

Cover image: Irene Rice Pereira, Monument I (Washington), 1938. 30 x 36 inches. Signed and dated lower right.