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.
"Andy Warhol had a large complex at the eastern end of Long Island, where I flew for 25 years. One day I was coming back from a mission and I had an emergency. So I picked the first place to land, his large compound. As I'm shutting down, here comes Warhol wearing nothing but a bathing suit." Rivolo recognized him right away. He recalled that he was "a very gracious host."
Rivolo combined postgraduate work in physics with the expansion of his search for art. He subsequently became the first postdoctoral fellow at the Space Telescope Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, then joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania. He currently is at the Pentagon's Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank where, he said, "I oversee operational testing of new systems, and I'm one of the airplane guys." His work includes the F-22, F-18 and the controversial Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
Despite the long hours, he finds time to study art and artists and to acquire new and interesting pieces.
"The hunt is always fun," he said, "but what is most fun is to discover someone that I do not know. A lot of the artists that I do discover are not generally known, but they are consummate artists. I buy aggressively, and that's turned out to be a brilliant strategy, because other people eventually discover those artists."
He cited the work of New York artist Harry Shoulberg, who has more than 1,000 dynamic silk-screen prints to his credit; and Elias Newman, also a New Yorker, who Rivolo insisted has even greater potential than Shoulberg as a major American artist in the fields of city- and landscapes.
Rivolo has simple advice for those who would like to know more about art: Educate the eye -- not just with the names of the artists, but by reading about what art is.
"Once you have the eye trained, learn the history of the artists and of the times that created the art," said Rivolo, who has read several hundred biographies. "In the lifetime of the artists is a passion for their art that translates immediately."
Where does he go to find his prints? "The Georgetown Flea Market is still the best local venue." He smiled and brought out an original lithograph by James Abbot McNeill Whistler, signed by the artist in the stone and also in pencil. Rivolo bought it at the flea market a few days before the interview for $400 -- although, he said, it is worth at least 10 times that sum.
He also buys from small auction houses and finds that in the D.C. area, Waverly Auctions in Bethesda has proven to be the best source. He also haunts the Print Room at the National Gallery to do research on his acquisitions and occasionally explores the holdings in the Library of Congress.
He talked about his collecting with a sense of private satisfaction. But it hasn't all been as easy as buying an undiscovered Whistler at a flea market. When he was in graduate school at State University of New York in Stony Brook, he went to an estate auction where a print caught his eye. The auctioneer thought it might sell for around $100 -- nearly all Rivolo had to spend at the time.
While he waited for the bidding to start, he talked with an elderly lady and noted that he intended to bid on the print. She asked him whether he knew the work, and when he said no, she told him it was Charles Meryon's 19th-century masterpiece of French etching, "La Morgue."
She also said that she was going to bid on it, but she knew the man next to her was from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and that he was going to buy it. Rivolo asked whether that meant he wasn't going to get the piece for his hundred dollars, to which she said, "Try $4,000."
The print sold for $4,800, proof to Rivolo that at least he had a good eye.
Two years later, he did buy a Meryon etching for $15 and kept it until 1981. Getting ready to graduate, and broke, he sold it to a dealer for $8,000, who resold it almost immediately for $17,000.
Does he have a personal Holy Grail? Well, yes -- two, in fact.
"To own a fine copy of 'Melancholia,' Albrecht Durer's powerful 1514 engraving; and a copy of 'Portrait of Dr. Gachet' , Vincent van Gogh's only print -- one of which last sold at auction for about $300,000."
Rivolo makes annual contributions of his art -- more than 1,500 prints so far -- to the Albany Print Club in New York toward the club's announced goal of building a national Museum of the Print, a natural choice for Rivolo to support.
When asked where his collection will go, Rivolo looked at his walls critically and nodded toward the workroom.
"My last phase of life will be as a gallery art dealer," he said. "So maybe that's where it's going, to other collectors." Those who will share his passion for ink on paper.