Ernest Trova

Falling Man 80


Not on display

Ernest Trova 1927–2009
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1372 × 1372 mm
frame: 1390 × 1390 × 35 mm
Presented anonymously through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1964


Falling Man 80 is a square, symmetrical painting rendered in a graphic style with a limited yet bold palette. It consists of a black background with a pale border, inside which sits the outline of a large circle in similarly pale hue. At the bottom of the circle is a red, white and beige triangle, and the upper part of the circle is filled with ten figures shown in profile as pale silhouettes. These are presented in two sets of five – one group facing left and the other right, mirroring one another – and appear sequentially, in two neat, curved rows. At the centre of the circle is a point around which the sequentially placed figures appear to rotate and a red arrow points from the bottom of this point down towards the apex of the triangle. This suggests that the figures are moving directly downwards, while two further arrows, painted in a dark tone and positioned on either side of the group of figures, indicate that they are also travelling in a curving, semi-circular motion. The two central bodies bear graphic elements on their pale forms, suggesting these to be the ‘first’ in the trajectories of the two groups. Multiple images of the figures’ feet appear in the centre of the painting as if overlapping, resulting in repeated shapes which are further suggestive of movement. The stark, geometric shapes that make up Falling Man 80 are rendered in block colours, giving the work the appearance of a diagram or schema.

This painting was made by the American artist Ernest Trova in 1963. Trova was born in St Louis, Missouri, where he lived and worked throughout his life. First exhibited in his one-man show at the Hanover Gallery in London in 1964, Falling Man 80 is painted in matte, water-based acrylic, which appears to have been added directly onto the surface of the canvas in areas of flat colour. Some parts of the canvas remain unpainted and pencil lines are visible, for instance around each of the figures, indicating that the design may have been drafted onto it prior to the paint being added.

The figures, while representative of ‘man’ as given in the title, appear non-human, androgynous and incomplete, resembling automatons or mannequins such as those Trova encountered during his earlier career working in department store displays. In 1966 Trova described the ‘falling man’ figure that he repeatedly explored within his work as ‘fundamentally a graphic symbol of the “individual”… whose posture is neutrally-serene’ (quoted in Kultermann 1978, p.58). He explained that regardless of the predicaments or environments in which his figures were placed, they remained ‘rational’ or balanced, and that while they moved towards ‘an eventual fall to inevitable oblivion, what becomes important to man (the Falling Man) is the journey, not the destination we have come to expect – death’ (quoted in Kultermann 1978, p.58). The continual journeys taken by the figures in works such as Falling Man 80 might be interpreted as a metaphor for life’s trajectory. The armless figures cannot halt their own fall, and the emotional detachment suggested by the painting’s graphic style and block colours suggest that each one accepts the path upon which Trova places them with a calm dignity.

The earliest use of the ‘falling man’ motif appeared in Trova’s assemblage Falling Man Triptych 1961, in which the figure is presented at a different stage of falling in each of the three canvases. By 1965 Trova had moved on to producing three-dimensional, highly polished metal figures fused with elements such as vehicles or machinery (see, for instance, Study/Falling Man (Wheelman) 1965, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis). In 1969 Trova embarked upon a series of segmented and hinged figures, including Study/Falling Man (Flowerman) 1969 (Laumeier Sculpture Park, St Louis). According to art historian Udo Kultermann, in this later evolution of the theme ‘the mechanical devices added to earlier works are … replaced by segments and arrangements of the figure itself. The figure is completely self-sufficient and the body, with its differently arranged parts, acts out the programmed solutions’ (Kultermann 1978, pp.124–5).

Although based in St Louis, Trova exhibited frequently at Pace Gallery in New York and Boston from 1963. His work appeared alongside that of his contemporaries Roy Lichtenstein, James Rosenquist and Andy Warhol in the 1963 exhibition Pop Art USA at the Oakland Museum in California. Yet while his early graphic style shared pop’s allusion to commercial art and its techniques, Trova’s ambiguous fusion of the human form with manmade objects has seen him labelled a neo-surrealist (see Miller 1970, p.70), while art historian Hilton Kramer connected his work’s machine-like appearance to that of the futurists (Hilton Kramer, New York Times, 19 January 1969, p.25).

Further reading
Donald Miller, ‘Ernest Trova as Neo-Surrealist’, Art International, vol.14, no.7, 20 September 1970, pp.66–70.
Udo Kultermann, Trova, New York 1978.
Matthew Strauss, ‘Ernest Trova: Biography’, 2010,, accessed 15 November 2016.

Lucinda Towler
November 2016

Supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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Catalogue entry

Ernest Trova b. 1927

T00666 Falling Man 80 1963

Inscr. ‘E. Trova’ on back of canvas.
Latex on canvas, 54 x 54 (137 x 137).
Presented by an anonymous donor through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1964.
Exh: Ernst Trova, Hanover Gallery, April–May 1964 (3, repr.).

The artist wrote (4 April 1965): ‘I haven’t organized a formal statement on my personal philosophy or on the interpretation of the falling man theme. I can say that I have, in a general way, meditated for a number of years on the nature of man; re/ man as an imperfect creature and his aspirations to overcome his nature. I might say the paintings show man as victim in various environments—some perilous, some placid. Perhaps the message in the paintings and sculpture might be—no matter what the predicament man finds himself in ... or how helpless he is in controlling his state of being ... he can act with intelligence and dignity and without hysteria.

‘I began the falling man series around 1960–61. They developed from assemblages I was doing at the time, I had been making sculpture all during this time. I showed the earliest paintings on this theme in Boston, Mass., Pace Gallery, April 1962.1 showed next at Pace Gallery, New York, 1963.

‘Falling Man 80, 1963, first shown at Hanover Gallery, 1964, was one of the last group of paintings done before I began to concentrate my efforts on sculptural aspects of the theme. In the future I intend to do both painting and sculpture.’

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1964–1965, London 1966.

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