The Legacy of Ernest Tino Trova

Born and raised in the St. Louis area, living in Missouri throughout his life, the self-taught painter and sculptor Ernest Trova broke into the art scene early in his career. At 20 years old, while still working as a decorator at a local department store, Trova exhibited his first work “Roman Boy,” which was awarded first prize by Max Beckmann at the St. Louis Art Museum’s Missouri Exhibition. This also landed him a featured photo of the piece in Life magazine, lending him quick and wide recognition, reaching galleries and critics across the nation.

Soon after this breakthrough into the art world, Trova went on to be represented by the then up-and-coming Pace Gallery, who was also exhibiting work by Andy Warhol, Jean Arp and Josef Albers at the time. The director of Pace Gallery, Arnold Glimcher, was introduced to Trova’s work in 1962 by the director of the Leo Castelli Gallery, Ivan Karp, who had been encouraging collectors and like-minded directors to take note of the young artist. Two years after, Trova’s painting “Study/Falling Man” as well as his first cast of “Study/Falling Man (Walking Man)” was housed alongside Warhol’s “Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” in Pace Gallery co-founder Fred Mueller’s collection. Soon, Pace grew beyond its initial Boston gallery, and when expanding in New York, inaugurated its new space with an exhibition of Trova’s work.

By the mid-1960s Trova began to transcribe his signature work into sculpture, namely his continued Falling Man series, which found new life in three-dimensions. He described his entire catalogue of work as a “single work in progress,” from painting to sculpture. This transition brought about international recognition, solidifying his significance to the growing culture of contemporary art. His first sculptural exhibition had sold out entirely and led to several highly regarded art collectors purchasing his work, with the first buyer being the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art. Private collectors followed suit, including Nelson Rockefeller, heightening the already growing appeal to Trova’s three-dimensional work. Before his passing in 2009, Trova had donated 40 of his works to St. Louis County, initially utilized for the inception of Laumeier Sculpture Park, with many remaining on display throughout the region.

Unfortunately after leaving Pace Gallery, Trova’s career took a quick and steep dive. He opted for a local manager and dealer who was severely inexperienced and incapable, granting this man near total control of his works and image as an artist. Throughout their agreement nearly $7,000,000 worth of his work had been destroyed, totaling 1,371 pieces, speculated to have been done for tax write-offs. Although gaining much more freedom and being allotted a larger budget for his work, with Trova himself even stating the sculptures he completed during that time are considerably “some of [his] strongest,” Trova never regained his initial renown or commercial success. Instead of marketing Trova’s work as fine art, his manager’s interest was in quick profits, overproducing small-scale versions of previously high-end prints and sculptures. His manager was uncooperative and had poor relationships with many people Trova had previously been on good terms with, including art curators and gallery owners from the east to west coast, leading to few galleries wanting to exhibit his work. Trova’s name was dropped from the ranks of his peers, soon only being mentioned to criticize. Even in his hometown, his work as an artist became neglected. The very park he helped found slowly removed several of his sculptures and allowed the rest to deteriorate, only offering botched restorations that led to further damage. Local magazines and critics wrote poorly of him, ignorantly berating the work they praised only years before. The ‘commercialism’ he practiced, which at its beginnings was criticized for its ‘kitschy’ nature while simultaneously noted as perhaps being ahead of its time, similar to Warhol and Keith Haring, instead was concretely lambasted as superficial and cheap.

A year following his death, White Flag Projects in St. Louis put together an encompassing exhibition of Trova’s work, acknowledging the shortcomings of the art world and its lemming mentality. Today, his work is still viewable on the MoMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art websites, citing his years of exhibitions and contributions to the progress of contemporary art. Posthumously his legacy has found traction once again, slowly re-entering high-art markets. In coming years, as with trends, his work will likely resurface in the same glowing light it had entered.


Read more and view archives of his work on the artist's website linked here.

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