Daniel Wolf



  • Daniel Wolf
    Daniel Wolf

Most people who come to Ridgway are going somewhere else. It’s a two-valley town, an upstream town—usually, a visitor approaches on Highway 550, climbing the steady rise of the Uncompahgre Valley. On a sunny day, there’s the occasional flash of reflected light from the rapids on the river beside the road. And then, at the only stoplight in the county, the visitor is confronted with some choices. Shell or Conoco. Red Mountain Pass or Dallas Divide. Ouray or Telluride. What’s it going to be?

Occasionally, somebody pulls over and sets the parking brake. Ridgway is home to many wanderers who became residents, and, last month, the town lost one of its most fascinating transplants. On January 25th, Daniel Wolf, whose professional career included collecting and dealing art, dilating historical photographs, producing films, and helping to run the Wolf Cattle Company, died unexpectedly at home in Ridgway, at the age of 65. Daniel is survived by his wife, two daughters, mother, brother, and two valleys’ worth of Ridgway friends and relatives who are struggling to come to grips with his loss.

The Wolfs first drifted into Ridgway in the 1970s, having fled Aspen. Perhaps “fled” is too strong a term, but there was a growing sense that Wolfs and ski towns don’t mix. “I remember walking with my father, Erving, in the late seventies, in downtown Aspen, when a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin wrapper blew by us in the street,” Mathew Wolf, Daniel’s younger brother, wrote recently. “At that moment, my dad said, ‘It’s time to find the next place.”

Ery Wolf was in the oil and gas exploration business, having grown up in Cheyenne, the son of a tailor. As a young man, he happened to meet Joy Mandel, a New Yorker who was visiting her cousin in Denver. Two and a half weeks later, Ery and Joy were married.

Nowadays, the 93-year-old Joy remembers those two and a half weeks as unnecessarily long. “I would have married him then,” she says, of their first meeting. “He had the most beautiful voice, just the timbre of it.”

Daniel was their second child; his sister, Diane, was a year older. As a boy Daniel was a good student, a fine tennis player, and a graceful skier. The first indication of a passion for art came at the age of nine, on a family trip to Paris. “I took them to the Jeu de Paume, and Daniel saw Van Gogh for the first time, and it hit him in the stomach,” Joy says. “He said he could do that, so we went to a place and bought oils and a brush and some canvas.” She laughs at the memory: “After about an hour or two, he said, ‘This is harder than I thought.’”

For Daniel, that first exposure was formative. In addition to his fascination with art, he developed an enduring respect for the individuals who create it. His own love-at-first-sight marriage was with Maya Lin, the architect and sculptor who, among many other works, is the designer of the Vietnam War Memorial. In New York City, Daniel used to think of Maya as the one major artist in town whom he hadn’t met. Finally, he angled a seat next to her at a dinner party. The courtship wasn’t quite as fast as two and a half weeks, but it didn’t take long. For Maya, there was also something special about Daniel’s “soft, beautiful, classical-radio-announcer voice.”

By then, Daniel already had a home in Ridgway. After Ery Wolf had encountered that fateful Egg McMuffin wrapper in Aspen, he consulted the hippest person he knew—in those days, hip meant a young man with an earring. The young man and his earring said smart people were going to Telluride.

“We left an hour later,” Joy recalls. “We drove from Aspen, and we came through Ridgway. We turned on the highway and we saw Sneffels, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Well, this is it.”

The Wolfs never made it to Telluride, in terms of real estate. Around this time, the rancher Marie Scott died, and sections of her vast holdings started to appear on the market. Every time the Wolfs looked at a piece, the agent told them that another potential buyer had just been there. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s just a real estate ploy!’ Joy remembers. And the same day we bought our land, Ralph Lauren bought his land.”

Ery and Joy ended up purchasing the ranch on Highway 62 that’s now the Wolf Cattle Company. Daniel’s path to his own Ridgway home was more circuitous. In high school, he spent a year in Paris, where he started collecting photographs from the nineteenth century. They didn’t have much of a market—the world was slow to recognize photography as high art.

“He could buy beautiful photographs for a dollar or two,” Joy says. “He was telling Ery about it, and Ery said, ‘Well, Daniel, you ought to do the five- or ten-dollar photographs.’ And Daniel said, ‘I don’t know enough yet.”

After returning to New York, Daniel stood in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art every Sunday, when entrepreneurs were allowed to set up stalls. “Daniel had the most beautiful girlfriend at the time,” Joy remembers. “And people would come to Daniel not so much for the photographs but to take a look at this beautiful girlfriend.” She laughs and continues, “He made a lot of money on those Sunday mornings.”

The girlfriend didn’t last, but the experience did. And Daniel’s sober self-assessment—“I don’t know enough yet”—became the mark of a dealer who understands the value of cumulative knowledge. Over the years, Daniel expanded his collection, acquiring works by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and others. Eventually, he opened his own gallery. In the 1980s, he helped the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquire what would become one of the world’s most important collections of photographs. Along the way, Daniel played a significant role in creating a market and an appreciation of photography as true art.

So what’s the next purchase after a dealer has moved beyond the five- or ten-dollar photographs? For Daniel, it was a plot of land with an old cabin and a view of Sneffels. Eventually, he bought another nearby piece, where he constructed a gorgeous home designed by the Italian architect Ettore Sotsass. Even afterward, he kept that original plot. Sometimes, he would point out the cabin and say, “That’s the original homestead.”

The Egg McMuffin wrappers never blew into Ridgway, and the Wolfs never left. Diane, Daniel’s older sister, passed away in 2008, and she is buried in Dallas Park Cemetery. Ery passed in 2018, at the age of 91. Mathew and his wife, Anne, have a ranch overlooking the Cimarron. The members of the next generation—Mathew and Anne’s two sons and daughter, and Daniel and Maya’s two daughters—are all deeply attached to Ridgway.

The landscape has also inspired and informed the art of Maya Lin, who, in 2006, created a major museum exhibit entitled “Systematic Landscapes! For any Ridgway resident who caught the show as it traveled across the country—in New York, in Washington, in Minneapolis, in any number of cities—there was a special thrill in recognizing pieces with titles like “Blue Lakes Pass.”

Among friends who attended Wolf household dinner parties, a common joke was that people came to meet Maya Lin, but they left talking about Daniel. He was a true character: funny and friendly, curious and warm-hearted. He had an effortless way of making people feel at home, and despite all of his experiences, he rarely talked about himself. Until the obituaries appeared, a number of friends had no idea that Daniel had won a Peabody and an Emmy for producing a documentary about Andy Warhol.

He was happiest with his daughters, India and Rachel. As children, the girls spent summers in Ridgway, hiking and riding horses. In an Uncompahgre rite of passage, India worked a college summer as a waitress at the Colorado Boy, in Ouray. And recently all four family members spent most of the pandemic year in Ridgway.

“Daniel and I were pinching ourselves because we had our kids here when actually we had prepared to be empty-nesters,” Maya says. “It’s a horrible circumstance, but I’ll cherish that we had that time with them. And they had that time with Daniel.”

After graduating from Yale University, India spent the Covid fall having a greenhouse built on some of the family’s land. She hopes to raise flowers and other plants to sell at the farmers’ market in Ridgway. In recent years, with the idea of protecting the landscape, Daniel purchased some plots in the long, beautiful river valley south of town. “He thought it should be kept as green, working lands,” India says. Some of her fondest memories are of working alongside her father, hands in the dark floodplain earth, planting peonies. “He helped me dig a few days, and he drove out to see the greenhouse every day.”

For Rachel, the highlights of a hard year were long daily walks she took with Daniel, foraging for plants that she used in her own art works. Rachel is currently studying at Cooper Union, but perhaps her best art instructor was her father. After his sudden death, of a heart attack, he was buried beside the house that he built, beneath a grove of aspens that he planted. From the gravestone there is a dear view of Sneffels. In memory, Rachel wrote a poem:

Sky’s blue artery floods at inevitable tilts and I’m unaccustomed to saying goodbye to planets.

...The soil is exposed now, apropos time. And this is you. Despite allure of a planetary lumen, you make the trees grow.

Walking through trees with you.

Walking through trees with you.