A Passion for the Print
Annandale Man's Eye for Art Inspires Large Collection
By Michael J. McNamara
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page VA22
Rex Rivolo lives in a modest home in Annandale with his partner, Diane, a cat, Violet, and more than 10,000 works of art -- one of the largest private collections in the United States.
The living room walls are decorated with etchings by Paul Cezanne, Gerald Brockhurst, Kathe Kollwitz and Erich Heckel. At one side are lithographs by Henri Matisse and Raphael Soyer, and two woodblocks by Paul Jacoulet. A drawing by Amedeo Modigliani in an elaborate gold frame hangs in a far corner.
"I was saving up to buy a new car," Rivolo said, "and I had a chance to buy this portrait. But there was really no choice."
He nodded toward the 14-year-old car in the driveway. This is clearly a man driven by a passion for art, and particularly for ink on paper: original prints and drawings. Though he enjoys the German Expressionists and American Impressionism, he described himself as a "promiscuous collector" of almost any era, in any medium, and will pursue a $5 print with as much zest and determination as the Modigliani that cost $30,000.
He does draw the line, however, at contemporary American art.
"All art is a sign of its times," he said, "and from the 1950s forward, there is nothing in our society that's worth pursuing. That art has no future. It will just continue to become extinct -- as it should."
There is no true or memorable art in the United States, he said, "because life is too good. There is only yin, and you need both yin and yang. You need the hard times to contrast with the creative process. If there are no highs and lows in society, then nothing of permanence will be created; and that's where we are. All art has disappeared."
Even though the walls of every room are filled with art, the vast bulk of the collection is secured in Solander boxes: acid-free containers that are virtually airtight to protect the artworks stored inside. These rest in carefully arranged order on specially made racks lining the walls of Rivolo's workshop. At hand is a computer-indexed inventory. It takes just a few seconds to locate a particular piece of art and carefully remove it from its locked container for review.
Rivolo calculated the value of the collection at more than $2 million and growing, with art appreciating at an increasing rate.
Rivolo's first passion was not art, however, but flying.
"When I was 5 years old, I was totally seduced," he said. "I saw a contrail in the sky; I remember the day. I yanked on my mom's skirt and asked what was that? She said it was an airplane. I said, 'You mean there's a person in that dot?' She said yes, and from that moment I had to be the person in that dot. It just grabbed my life for the next 20 years."
With an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering, Rivolo went straight into the Air Force. He became fascinated with original prints when he was flying in Southeast Asia (531 combat missions in F-4 fighters over three years. Between sorties he began to explore fine art. "I bought and read books," he said, "and this became the basis for my pursuit of the print, because the print is the ultimate ink on paper." He recalled a quotation he once heard that influenced his passion: "A drop of ink can make a million think."
Original prints make up more than 95 percent of his collection; the remainder are drawings, oil paintings and sculpture. He also has a "modest number" -- about 1,000 bookplates, mostly etchings done in Austria, Germany and what was then Czechoslovakia. These handsome pieces, many of them by well-known artists, were commissioned by private book collectors and often are more valuable than the books they were intended to grace and identify.
Rivolo left active duty after six years but continued to fly in the Air National Guard as a rescue pilot in the 102nd Air Rescue Squadron, based at Westhampton Beach, N.Y. He even managed to combine art with flying.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company