Riva Wolf: Under a black cloud, a bright palette emerges

A McMinnville retrospective shows the late artist’s range, from echoes of the Holocaust to Fauvism to “Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss”

When Riva Wolf attended the 1986 screening of the nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, it was as both artist and witness. Wolf’s parents and two brothers died in Auschwitz, and a collection of nearly 20 of her paintings, drawings, and etchings, some based on her family, filled the lobby of the New Community Cinema in New York. A reporter at the scene wrote that her work was “like an echo of the monumental movie playing inside.”

Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates
Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates

Wolf died last fall at age 87. A retrospective exhibition curated by her son, Gershon Wolf, and his wife, Veronica Ruth, makes the echo audible for a few weeks in Yamhill County. Riva Wolf — A Solo Retrospective can be seen through Feb. 14 at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Nearly three dozen pieces are available for purchase in the artist-owned and -operated gallery and may be viewed during regular business hours or by appointment.

Gallery co-owner Marlene Eichner and her husband, Steve, first met Riva after befriending Gershon at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Salem in 2018. “He was new to Salem,” Eichner  recalled. “He is a wonderful musician and played guitar for some of our events.” His mother moved to Oregon from New Mexico, where she had been active in the arts community, three years after the 2015 death of her husband, Donald, an accomplished photographer.

The plan, Gershon said, was to start fresh in Oregon with a new business name, social media campaign, and a multi-media show incorporating the family’s work that would bounce around the West Coast. Eichner invited Riva Wolf to visit Currents, where she met other artists. There was talk of her resuming oil and pastel painting and possibly being represented by the gallery.

The family’s artistic launch in Oregon came a year ago with a show of Donald Wolf’s photography marking his yahrzeit – the observance of the anniversary of his death. Later that month, a show of Riva’s work at the Chabad Center, titled Knock at the Door, included a documentary of the same name about Wolf’s family in Europe during the war.

"Self-Reflection," by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)
“Self-Reflection,” by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)

Shortly after, Gershon and Riva prepared a third show for the Borland Gallery in Silverton. They planned to open in March 2020 — a point on the calendar now fixed in the nation’s collective memory.

“COVID hit and ruined our show,” Gershon said. “Technically, we set up and had an opening with food and music, but only like five people came to the opening. A few others came while the show was up that first week by appointment, and then we started taking it down.”

By this time, Riva was ailing from a brain tumor that had been diagnosed on New Year’s Day 2020. There would be no more painting. She died in a Salem hospice in November.

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A couple of months before much of Oregon burst into flames last year, Gershon noticed that Currents was auctioning artwork online. He asked Eichner if he could throw in a few pieces of his mother’s work.

“They gave me a full-blown show instead,” he said.

Summer wildfires interrupted the show’s curation. Silverton was spared, but between the Beachie Creek and Lionhead fires, the Wolfs took no chances. “I literally had to truck all the art out of the house when the fires were coming and stash it at the temple,” Gershon said. Eventually, he came up with enough pieces for a show.

What’s striking about the Currents exhibition is that it isn’t obvious that the pieces are by a single artist. Looking at the body of work that spans more than half a century, it becomes clear that this woman who survived the Holocaust and spent the rest of her life under what Gershon calls a “black cloud” was an accomplished artist versatile in a variety of media and stylistic approaches. Also, she was not content to make any one topic her subject.

Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories”series).
Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled, lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories” series).

A few pieces evoke the Holocaust; others are less obviously tied but have a somber, reflective tone. Still other paintings are playful, blending bold colors with expressive flourishes reminiscent of Fauvism, a style that emerged in early 20th-century France. Wolf, who traveled extensively in Europe after the war, studied that movement carefully and delighted in creating a visual palette, Gershon said, “where Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss.”

Which, he adds, is perfectly natural. “She was a mother!” he said. “She’d read all the Dr. Suess books.”

Wolf’s extraordinary story may be pieced together from a variety of sources: recordings Gershon made as a teenager; a biographical sketch on the Wolf Studios website; the documentary about her family on Vimeo; and newspaper and magazine clippings about exhibitions, scores of which were held in New Mexico in the 1980s and 1990s. After viewing a 1992 exhibition, John Villani wrote in Santa Fe Focus magazine:  “I came away with a conviction that here was an artist whose art is the most personal expression of her inner self. It is … cathartic, a reasoning device, a voice and a joy and springs from a level of consciousness accessible to few save in dreams.”

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Wolf was born Riva Cukier in 1933 in Warsaw, Poland. Her father was a rabbi, and shortly after she was born, her family moved to France. As the Nazis overran Europe, 6-year-old Riva was sent to hide in Switzerland with other Jewish children, under the protection of a Christian group. Riva and three older sisters survived; she never saw the rest of her family again. In 2013, filmmaker Gregg McPherson looked at her family’s story in the film A Knock at the Door: The True Story of the Holocaust in France

After the war, Riva made her way to America, where she made fashion illustrations for newspaper advertisements, and she met the man she would marry, Don Wolf. Her interest in art stemmed in part from visiting the Louvre after the war. Having received classical training at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she studied painting and pastel with Robert Brackman at The Art Students League in New York. “Brackman was an important influence on my development as a painter,” she said. “I learned the importance of sound construction and draftsmanship.”

"Early Morning Canyon Road," by Riva Wolf (oil on linen, 25 by 30 inches)
“Early Morning Canyon Road,” by Riva Wolf (oil on linen, 25 by 30 inches)

Growing up in New York, Gershon Wolf recalls going to public schools with his brother while their father taught middle school. Their mother stayed home, and she painted. 

“There was this black cloud hanging over her all the time, between the fact that she was a war orphan, and the Vietnam War was going on at the time,” he said. “My brother was just a few years away from draft age, so that was hanging over our heads.” With the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and John and Robert Kennedy, Wolf said it was a bad time, and his mother’s paintings reflected that. “There were some still lifes and portraits, she was still learning to a certain extent, but no bright happy things, no horses running in fields.” The paintings from that period, he said, tended to use darker colors to represent light, shadows, and depth — a technique some call chiaroscuro.

A return trip to Europe in the late 1960s influenced Wolf’s artistic evolution. For two years, the family lived in London, and while Don taught social studies, Riva taught art classes at The American School. In Amsterdam, she was introduced to etching and took a deeper dive into Fauvism. She talked about the experience with Villani for the Santa Fe Focus:

While my husband and I were teaching in London, we spent a fortnight in Amsterdam. Our visit to Rembrandt’s house made a strong impression on me. It inspired a desire to learn etching, which I later did while living in Mexico. And when I saw the museum of Van Gogh’s paintings, I was mesmerized by their beauty and power. It was at that point that I understood the influence of the Fauvists.

Eichner says some of those pieces remind her of Marc Chagall’s work. “There are aspects that are representational, but the background settings are distorted,” she said. “They evoke in me the feeling of normal people in abnormal circumstances. Walls and streets are depicted unsteady, always changing in unexpected ways. Normal sights like people in doorways evoke a feeling of menace,” calling to mind life in war-torn Europe. The later work, she added, “still portrays normal life from odd angles, but in joyous colors and movement. Often a woman is depicted looking out a window as if detached from the noisy world.”

This portrait of Riva Wolf at work is one of her son’s favorites. Photo courtesy: Gershon Wolf
This portrait of Riva Wolf at work is one of her son’s favorites. Photo courtesy: Gershon Wolf

Gershon Wolf isn’t sure what’s next after the Currents show. There’s no shortage of work by his parents to curate. “I don’t have the money to whip up giclee prints of whatever I want, but one day I plan on doing a comprehensive exhibit of her Holocaust stuff,” he said. “Since it is such a depressing subject, the [previous] shows have always included bright, happy stuff to show that she survived it all, and the art reflects her life in that way.” Next up, however, he’s likely to start going through his father’s photographs, both for in-person exhibitions and selling online.

“I love having shows,” he continued. “Our family did antique, photography, and art shows all through the second half of the 20th century, but the only reason I am selling the originals is that I have no place to store them due to downsizing, and I need the money. I decided that it would be nicer to have the paintings on people’s walls all over Oregon where they could be appreciated. Mom would have liked that idea.”

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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