Donald Wolf photographer

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.”

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