Petroglyph, c. 1937, color lithograph on paper, signed in pencil lower right, edition of approximately 25, plus artist's copies, Index of American Design, 14 11/16 x 14 1/4 inches (image)
During the 1930s, many painters and sculptors across the United States worked to create a truly American art by looking to historical antecedents for a usable past. For some, this search extended to the material culture of the Colonial and Federal Eras and included folk traditions gleaned from European immigrants. Far away from the East Coast, a handful of artists living in California and Washington, looked beyond European traditions to Native American culture as something to be preserved, honored, and built upon. Synthesizing these largely untrained traditions with contemporary trends derived from academia, Depression Era artists developed a type of naïve Modernism, which gained favor through venues such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery.
Lala Eve Rivol and Robert Bruce Inverarity shared many commonalities. Of the same generation, both artists were active participants in New Deal art programs along the West Coast and approached their work through the lens of anthropology and a deep reverence for and desire to preserve the legacy of America’s first people. Their prints, drawings and paintings connected Native American design to European and Anglo-American art and in the process created a unique form of Pacific Coast Modernism. Through national exhibition of their Native American-influenced works, Rivol and Inverarity helped educate ordinary citizens across the United States about the contributions and influence of indigenous peoples.
Lala Eve Rivol was a California-based print and textile artist. She was from a Ukrainian Jewish family which had immigrated in 1905 to New York, where the artist was born. By 1921, Rivol’s family had relocated to Los Angeles, where her father built a wallpaper contracting business and worked on set designs in Hollywood. After a childhood surrounded by opera, the symphony and the motion picture industry and a failed marriage at a young age to a successful society fashion designer, Kenneth Hopkins, Rivol moved to San Francisco and received a scholarship to study weaving and theater arts at the Swedish Academy for Applied Arts in the “Monkey Block” building. Rivol’s striking features made her a popular model for prominent San Francisco artists.
While still an art student, Rivol became interested in early Native American art after reading Julian Steward’s book, Petroglyphs of California and Adjoining States. Along with a friend, John Greathead, Rivol visited the Carrizo Plain in California’s San Luis Obispo County. Awed by the beauty of the petroglyphs, but deeply concerned by their deterioration, Rivol developed a plan to memorialize the designs. Upon returning to San Francisco, she visited Joe Danysh, the WPA Federal Works of Art Project Supervisor for the western states. She pitched Danysh on the idea of replicating the images for the Index of American Design, a New Deal art project with the mission to record “every element of good design in American culture.”
Danysh and Rivol agreed to capture the images in color lithography. The Santa Maria Times reported in an article from April 7, 1936, that the Federal Art Project commission would reproduce the indigenous art “with fidelity as to spirit and color.” The paper continued, “Linear inscriptions on the walls of the caves relate the story of the hunt and religious ceremonies similar to the more famous hieroglyphics of the cliff dwellers of Arizona. At higher elevations an amazing series of polychrome murals depict many scenes of the enactments of sun-worshipers and the various rituals of mysterious races.”
Rivol made many field visits to Carrizo Plain and other petroglyph sites to make painstaking studies of the already degraded and deteriorating designs. Over the course of nearly three years and with compensation of $94 per month, Rivol ultimately completed 33 designs in 16 sites, including 10 in California, 2 in Nevada and 4 in Arizona. Using the Munsell System of color matching, sketching the designs and assisting with Greathead’s photography, Rivol recorded as much data as possible to reproduce the designs. After returning to her studio in San Francisco, Rivol projected the photographs using a camera lucida to correct distortions and traced the images. From these outlines, she used colored pencils on textured paper to capture the surface and palette of the petroglyphs. Rivol then cooperated with the printmaker Fred Bohne to create lithographic stones for each color of the final printing process.
The lithographs were produced in an edition of approximately 25 copies, plus a few sets for the artist. In 1937, several of Rivol’s images of the California petroglyphs were shown at New York's Museum of Modern Art in connection with its well-reviewed exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures from the Frobenius Collection, Comparative Styles from Europe and Africa. Alfred Barr, MOMA’s Director, and Dorothy Miller, MOMA’s Assistant Curator, installed Rivol’s works together with a group of European Modernists, including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, directly making the connection between the prehistoric art and the contemporary moment, as well as honoring Rivol’s images as independent works of art. One critic characterized the work in the exhibition as “literal to abstract to surreal [which] can easily be compared with modernists like Andre Masson, Jean Arp, Joan Miro and Max Ernst.” Another observer even proclaimed that the early indigenous artists in the exhibition were the first surrealists. The MOMA exhibition then traveled to the West Coast where it was presented in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
At the same time, portions of Rivol’s portfolio began to tour the country as part of an exhibition of colored lithographs by California and New York WPA artists organized by Holger Cahill, the National Director of the WPA Federal Art Project and Dorothy Miller's husband. “Regional material appears quite strongly in the group of work from California,” noted a critic, “Especially fascinating are the ‘petroglyph’ prints of Lala Eve Rivol, which record the oldest murals done in California, executed by Indian tribes on the walls of caves.” In addition to noting the importance Rivol’s lithographs played in preserving the quickly deteriorating designs, observers commented on the modernism of the work, “The strange resemblance of these designs to surrealist art is at once apparent.” Another commentator wrote, “The instinctive expression of primitive Indian tribes, bear a striking resemblance to the imaginative painting of modern painters.”
From 1937 through 1939, Rivol’s lithographs were included in additional exhibitions from coast to coast, including Sioux City, Iowa, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Red Lodge, Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah, Chattanooga and Nashville, Tennessee, Corvallis, Oregon and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. Examples were sent to Europe for the Paris Exposition and to honor a trip across Western states, the California branch of the Federal Art Project presented a group of lithographs, which included several of Rivol’s petroglyph images, to President Roosevelt in October 1937. Rivol’s lithographs were later featured in exhibitions at the Marin Museum of the American Indian in 1988 and at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and Museum of Natural History in 1997.
After her time with the WPA, Rivol reunited with her ex-husband and moved to Los Angeles, where she designed decorative arts and fabrics which were exhibited at the forerunner to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. After Hopkins’ death, Rivol married two more times, continued to study and produce art, and lived in Los Angeles and Minnesota before moving to San Diego, where she died in 1996.
Examples of Rivol’s petroglyph lithographs are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art (Washington DC), the Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, the State of Utah, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of West Georgia.