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White Flag treats Trova with the seriousness he deserves

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2010 - I met Ernest Trova in the mid-1960s when he was at the zenith of his career. He had scored a place in a solid New York City gallery, having caught the attention of Ivan Karp who spread the word. He had a fantastic wife, the glamorous and aristocratic Carla Rand -- called Teddy. She was an artist herself, a Cornellian sort, who treasured big ideas compressed in small images. She did the dirty, disheartening business of schlepping pictures of Trova's work from gallery to gallery in New York until, finally, someone bit. The rest was art and social history, and as we look back on it revolved around the singular image of the Falling Man.

The Trovas were bright, shining fixtures of the strange and multi-chambered dwelling that is St. Louis Society, a society that in those days was quite marvelously inclusive, bringing together as it did former Veiled Prophet queens and hipsters and hippies, and artists and druggies and bankers and interior designers and urban developers and so on and on.

Matthew Strauss is scion of all that, and proteins of what made the 1960s in St. Louis such a special and dynamic time and place are bred in the bone. As his late father, Leon, did, and as his mother, Mary, continues doing, Matt Strauss fills a special niche in the art and social edifice of St. Louis.

A while back, he began manifesting artistic ambitions, and as he stretched his artistic legs the venerable Ernest Trova was there as his coach, treating Matt's work with respect and enthusiasm.

Strauss' metier, it turns out, would be aesthetic discrimination and discovery and the exhibition of works of art. All that -- and providing a serene place for contemplation. In this place, White Flag Projects, Strauss is returning the favors Trova bestowed on him. There, he has mounted an important, reputation-burnishing exhibition of Trova's work.

Readers are encouraged to make time to see this homage before it is disassembled. Because, unless some unexpected groundswell of appreciation of Trova's work occurs, the bulk of the output of his industry may remain in relative obscurity, recognized and cherished by those of us who have always held it in esteem, but otherwise, to most people, resigned to the category of middling interest.

Trova was an autodidact and clearly a talent. He said no thanks to a career as an engineer and staked a claim in the soil of creativity. As he matured, so did the quality of his work, which began to attract attention in the mid-1940s. He explored various avenues. One was a gritty, aggressive brand of working in various media. Such a picture, "Roman Boy," for example, caught the attention of Max Beckmann when he was here in the late 1940s, and it was included in the Art Museum's annual show of local artists.

 

When the Gaslight Square was ablaze in glory, Trova hung out at the Landesman brothers' Crystal Palace and painted abstractly, often in a very de Kooningesque way, as hip musicians played jazz.

But in the 1960s and '70s, he broke away from tradition and from contemporary trends and established his own iconic figure, the Falling Man, whose ambiguous form and ironic presentations represented for many the spirit of the times. My guess is when someone writes the definitive art history of the 20th century, the Falling Man will receive the kind of critical attention it deserves. Falling Man, after all, is Everyman. His lineage goes back to Eden. He is remarkable in the absence of remarkability. Because the image was ubiquitous for a few years, large numbers of people who'd never held a work of art or cared about works of art suddenly became engaged because of Ernest Trova.

Trova was always something of an anomaly, but he figured importantly in the avant-garde mainstream in those heady days. The brassy and silvery androgynes were quickly embraced as visual representatives of a revolutionary era. Falling Man was elegant, pared down to the essential, lacking personality and sexuality but potent and expressive nonetheless.

And its creator belonged for a time in the company of an amazing and durable group of young artists working in the middle of the 20th century. His work was included in the pivotal and influential "7 for 67" show at the St. Louis Art Museum, and the Falling Man's images were all over the place in the popular and art press and even in museum gift shops, where for a few bucks you could pick up something authentic, like a Falling Man kaleidoscope.

All this was fleeting, or so it seems now, and Trova's decline was precipitous. In this after-the-Falling-Man time everything went haywire, or so it seemed to those of us who looked on in sadness. Matt Strauss has done a splendid job of telling all about the shooting star and its decline in a fascinating, gloves-off essay included in the materials related to his show at White Flag.

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It doesn't take inside information to see visual and material evidence of a career gone awfully wrong. You see this in work called "Gox" that remain in place around St. Louis. "Gox" looks like well-fabricated undergraduate work, and sometimes not so well fabricated. Sculptures from this series remain visible to us because Trova's name continues to carry some weight, especially in St. Louis, and serves to keep these mundane sculptures out of storage. They are flat, without soul, inspiration or intelligence.

Trova, however, could not be dismissed as we dismiss these artistic mistakes. In the period after the troubles Strauss describes, Trova came back with beautiful, lyrical paintings of genuine appeal, but this was Lion-in-Winter painting, and when a visitor came to his studio to drink from Meissen cups and to eat Lorna Doones, the talk strayed to the past, to Gaslight, to Ezra Pound, to the fun we had at a spectacular party Jorge Martinez organized at Union Station called the Velvet Plastic Ball.

In the material that Matt Strauss brings forth in this exhibition, the important work Ernest Trova accomplished holds the spotlight, and thanks to splendid editing and elegant installing, the work reveals itself in all its serious glory. One might argue that the show -- the first true Trova show in a quarter of a century -- may not be an entirely fair representation of an artist's six-decade career, but beyond the art itself, what sends it soaring is its respectful tone, and the permission it grants, at long last, to speak of rediscovery, restoration and regeneration.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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