Irene Rice Pereira (1907-1971), An unexpected encounter

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Irene Rice Pereira (1907-1971), An unexpected encounter
While visiting the Whitney Museum earlier this month to view the blockbuster Jasper Johns exhibition I wandered into an intimate exhibition titled, “Labyrinth of Forms, Women and Abstraction 1930-1950”.

by Jamie LaFleur
Founder and CEO ARTBnk

NEW YORK, NY.- While visiting the Whitney Museum earlier this month to view the blockbuster Jasper Johns exhibition I wandered into an intimate exhibition titled, “Labyrinth of Forms, Women and Abstraction 1930-1950”. The exhibit included artists that I expected to see such as Elaine de Kooning, Lee Krasner, and Louise Nevelson, and some I was familiar with and delighted to see included such as Perle Fine, Hedde Sterne, and Blanche Lazzell. There was one stand out artist that I knew very little about but who’s work captivated my attention, Irene Rice Pereira.

Pereira, Abstract Composition, ca 1938, graphite pencil on paper, Whitney Museum.

This exhibition is an example of a larger movement by art institutions to re-examine the role played by female artists in the development of western art. Women artists have been systematically overlooked and too often dismissed by the art world. Through the efforts to bring marginalized artists the recognition they deserve we have the opportunity for revelations such as Irene Rice Pereira.

Pereira burst onto the New York art scene in the early 1930s with dynamic modernist paintings of urban scenes and machinery. Her first exhibitions were held at the highly respected ACA Galleries and Theodore A Kohn Gallery.

Pereira painting Curves and Angles Composition in 1937.

By the End of the 1930s Pereira had pushed the boundaries of modernism forward by reducing the forms of her paintings to flat shapes and geometric lines. Her new work deconstructed the visual plane to manipulate space, perspective, form, shape and light. These works earned Irene a place of prominence in the avant-garde circles of New York with exhibitions at the East River Gallery and Julien Levy Gallery. Today works from this period are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art among others.

Pereria, “White Rectangles, Number 3”, 1939, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Pereira’s work evolved towards non-representational abstraction she began to experiment with her materials. By the mid 1940s she was creating groundbreaking paintings on floating layers of glass. These new materials allowed her to push the effects of light on space and form, becoming her most distinctive works which stand by themselves in the history of western painting. During this time she was at the center of American Art exhibiting and working at Peggy Gugenhiem’s gallery Art of This Century.

Pereira, Transfluent Lines, 1946, mixed media on corrugated glass and cardboard, National Gallery of Art.

Pereira, Shadows with Painting, 1940, oil on glass, over gouache and pencil and ink on cardboard with frame, Museum of Modern Art.

Pereira was a leading American artist during her life. Her works were exhibited and collected by the most important institutions and collectors of the time. Today she is only known to a select group of scholars and a small number of devoted collectors and dealers. She is an undervalued artist, both for her contributions to western art and for the prices her works achieve in the marketplace.

Pereira’s Market

Nearly 100 works by Pereira have sold at the world's leading auction houses over the past 20 years. In the rare event that a significant work becomes available at auction it produces a sale result which is much higher than the seller’s expectation. This is illustrated by the sale of “Untitled (Squares)” in May of 2021 which was estimated at $20,000 - $30,000, the work sold for $104,000 setting Pereira’s auction record.

Pereira, Untitled (Squares), 1944, oil and enamel on canvas, private collection.

Privately, Pereira’s works have sold for much higher prices than her auction market. This is largely due to the fact that her best works, held in private collections, are owned and sold by a tight circle of collectors and dealers. The American Paintings dealer Jonathan Boos sold an early example of Pereira’s work, Machine Composition, in 2019 for a price very close to the offering price of $275,000.

Pereira, Machine Composition, 1935, oil on canvas, private collection.

One of Pereira’s most important paintings on glass, Ruby Flux (the subject of an article in Artnews in 1952) was sold in 2018 by Portico Gallery, representing Andre Zarre, to a prominent American art collector for $180,000.

Pereira, Ruby Flux, 1952, casein and oil on corrugated glass, private collection.

In 2019 a private collector of modern and contemporary art purchased Receding Red, one of Pereira’s largest and most important canvases, from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery for $250,000.

Pereira, Receding Red, 1946, oil on canvas, private collection

While $100,000 to $300,000 is a significant amount of money, when we compare Pereira’s prices with her more well known contemporaries the numbers simply don’t line up. Significant works by fellow female abstract painter Lee Krasner (1908-1984) and her male counterparts such as Hans Hofman (1880-1966), Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), and Arshile Gorky (1904-1948) reach into the multi millions.

Works by Pereira’s contemporaries

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