Riva Helfond was born in Brooklyn, NY. She spent part of her childhood in Russia and returned to New York at the age of eleven. She studied at the Art Students League with Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Morris Kantor, and Harry Sternberg.
In the early 1930s, under the WPA, she was an instructor at the Harlem Art Center (the master printer, Robert Blackburn, was her student) and worked on the printmaking project. From 1936 to 1941 she worked in the New York Works Progress Administration Program creating lithographs, woodcuts, etchings, aquatints and serigraphs. She printed all of her own work. Among her friends were artists Willem DeKooning, and Arshile Gorky, and from the Cedar Tavern, Franz Kline and the critic Harold Rosenberg. In 2009 work by Helfond was featured in Industrial Strength, Precisionism in New Jersey, at the Jersey City Museum.
Helfond taught lithography with Jacob Lawrence and Romare Beardon at the Harlem Art Center and was later transferred to the Graphic Arts Division where she worked with Louis Lozowick and Jacob Kainen. She also worked in the silk- screen division supervised by Anthony Velonis. In 1964 she taught printmaking at New York University and after 1980, she was on the faculty of Union College in Cranford, New Jersey.