“Man is planted in a patch of world history…” –Ernest T. Trova, Jr.
The years following World War II gave rise worldwide to the dreams of Surrealism, the abstractions of Cubism and the distortions of Abstract Expressionism. Artists like Picasso, Braque, de Kooning, Giacometti and Pollock, modernists linked by their common pursuit of innovation and experimentation, laid the creative foundation for the mid-20th century. It was within this wider context that Ernest Tino Trova, Jr., the son of an industrial designer, taught himself how to paint.
Trova would eventually be considered one of America’s greatest artists, particularly of sculpture, with an oeuvre that confronted the changes faced by a post-war society. His works reside today in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis; and the Tate Modern in London; among others.
The artist was born on February 19, 1927 to Frances and Ernest T. Trova in Saint Louis, Missouri. After graduating from Clayton High School, he worked as a window dresser at the local department store Stix, Baer & Fuller, then, later, as a set designer for the Crystal Palace cabaret theater. He began painting in the 1940s, and throughout his lifetime his art would be a function, he said, of equal parts intuition and experience; Trova would never pursue a formal artistic education.
Trova’s first publicly exhibited work was shown at the Saint Louis Art Museum in 1947, after he submitted a mixed media work on cardboard, Roman Boy, to the annual Missouri Exhibition. A jury that included curators and the visiting artist Max Beckmann awarded it first place. The painting was featured in LIFE Magazine, accompanied by the headline WINDOW-TRIMMER’S PAINTING BAFFLES CRITICS IN ST. LOUIS. The article showed a photo of Trova, twenty years old and already wearing his soon-to-be iconic round-rimmed glasses, standing by the childlike, half-abstracted work he called a self-portrait.
Throughout the decade following, Trova continued working primarily as a painter, depicting in careful brushwork abbreviated human forms influenced by Giacometti, Pollock, and, in particular, de Kooning—whom Trova admired after meeting the artist and viewing his Women paintings at a 1953 exhibition in New York City. He also made Pop Art-style prints featuring a cast of delightfully surreal cartoon characters, as well as provocative assemblages and mixed-media works. But by the early 1960s, sculpture became the central vehicle for Trova’s art.
A major turning point occurred in 1964. Commissioned by the May Department Stores Company to create an exhibition in its downtown branch for the Saint Louis bicentennial celebration, Trova displayed his first three-dimensional versions of Study/Falling Man, including kinetic works and large sculptures. Certainly the best-known within Trova’s body of work, the Falling Man was a theme he would ruminate on, artistically, for the rest of his career.
The invariably sleek, armless, slightly pot-bellied Falling Man is, for all its enigma, a uniquely contemporary figure—an everyman for the new technological age. First explored on paper in the early 1960s, Trova wrought this placid figure in stainless steel, chrome, nickel-plated metals and enamel in the decades following the bicentennial exhibition. It has been described variously as humankind at its most fallible, humankind at its most invulnerable, humankind hurtling helplessly into a bleak future, humankind peacefully meeting its neutral future, and even an automaton. Critics and scholars have rooted the Falling Man in the myth of Icarus, the poetry of Milton and the paintings of Brueghels. Trova himself only offered to define the Falling Man by two qualities: “rationality” and “anti-hysteria.”
Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse—a character which, as seen through his massive private collection of the cartoon mouse’s memorabilia, held much fascination for Trova—can be said to share the essence of seriality as Trova practiced it with the Falling Man, which appeared in sculptures, paintings and wristwatches that were theoretically, given the title Study, harbingers of a future final work. Both his everyman and the mouse, sympathetic figures with inherent appeal, are endlessly adapting to new purposes and ideas, and are never quite ‘finished.’
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, Trova enjoyed great success and wide acclaim. Representation by the Pace Gallery, first in Boston, then in New York City where his solo exhibition inaugurated the gallery’s West 57th Street space in 1963, brought him into the spotlight as one of America’s favorite major artists. Ivan Karp, the director of the Leo Castelli Gallery who provided the connection between Trova and Arnold Glimcher of Pace Gallery in Boston, gave the introduction to the catalogue of Trova’s first solo show there. He wrote, “His art is metaphysical, at once meditative and aggressive, compounded of an enigmatic vision of corporeality, classical calm and exquisite craft.”
Yet unlike most artists of his caliber during this time, Trova never migrated to New York. He was content to work from the comfortable context of his native Saint Louis, where he would remain throughout his life.
In the 1970s Trova began creating monumental sculptures in the constructivist tradition, titling the series Profile Cantos. These large works provided a steel frame for a more abstracted Falling Man, and Trova donated 40 of them to help found Laumeier Sculpture Park in 1975, cementing his Saint Louis legacy. His Poet series of the late 1970s and ‘80s, featuring standing or walking figures in Cor-ten steel and other metals, showed a lifelong love for poetry which had once motivated him to travel to St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., in about 1950 to meet Ezra Pound. Other important works arose out of his Troubadour and Gox series. In the 1990s, Trova revived his beginnings in painting and mixed media with collages and paintings that grouped expressionistic shapes into abstract figural forms. A cartoon male figure called Yellow Man appeared in late prints and paintings, a playful foil to the smooth, elegant Falling Man. The prolific artist continued to exhibit and produce a rich variety of innovative work throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, moving the “journey,” as he called it, of his endlessly Falling Man forward.
Shortly before his death in 2009, Trova—pithy, as always—said this of his legacy: “I’ve been a man of my times, doing what I want to do, come hell or high water.”