Help Me, I'm Falling

"Stop!" a voice called out. "Please don't touch." And while the guard was not admonishing me, he might as well have been. I'm hard-pressed to remember when I have so longed to touch the art in an exhibition and been unable to. Yes, I am well aware of museum protocol and all the other rigmarole that adds up to, essentially, "Please don't touch." And yes, I am equally aware of issues of liability and insurance for items on loan from private collections and other institutions and all that. I know better, damn it, but sometimes I can't help wanting to touch.

The exhibition that brought this conflict bubbling to the surface is the Boca Raton Museum of Art's "Ernest Trova Retrospective," which observes the American artist's 80th year by casting a backward glance over his obsessive oeuvre. There are more than a hundred works here, from all phases of Trova's long career, although you'd hardly know it — with few exceptions, he has dwelt on a single subject, endlessly rearticulated. Works separated by half a century are so similar in essence that they might have all emerged from the artist's workshop yesterday.

According to an understated quote at the beginning of the exhibition — a boiled-down artist's statement of sorts — "Dealing with 'man' has been a lifelong preoccupation. Who is he? What is he? Why is he here?" For Trova, plumbing these questions repeatedly has meant revisiting a generic figure called "Falling Man." The overwhelming majority of the works in this retrospective are different iterations or studies of this figure.

That the artist — a native of St. Louis, Missouri, who is self-taught — has chosen to cast these variations on a theme in bronze, chrome, occasionally gold plate, and, most commonly, stainless steel partly explains their tactile appeal. The highly polished gleaming metal surfaces are enormously seductive.

But it's much more complicated than that. Trova's sculptures are almost never just simple human figures made of metal. Most often, he imposes a kind of deconstruction on the figures, breaking their idealized bodies down into hinged components that fold out in different directions or enclosing them in various armatures that constrict them or call attention to their isolation. I posit that it's these hinges, which suggest countless possible variations on a figure's configuration, that make the urge to touch Trova's sculptures so strong.

A pair of such figures at the beginning of the exhibition establishes a pattern that's rarely deviated from. Study/Falling Man (Figure in Sphere) comes in two sizes, both from 1986, in which one of those hinged figures reclines inside a contraption that looks like it could have been modeled after an exercise wheel from the cage of a small pet mammal. Its human contents, however, are not trapped neatly inside but extend beyond the sphere at either end, hinged head spilling open at one end, legs hinged at the knees dangling at the other. There are uncomfortable possibilities suggested — is the figure being subjected to some esoteric medical procedure or, worse, torture?

Similar questions arise elsewhere throughout the show. Does the subject of Study/Falling Man (Seated Figure), also from 1986, have his head thrown back during a routine visit to the dentist's office, or is he, say, enduring the sort of sadistic dental work administered to the reluctant Dustin Hoffman by Nazi torturer Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man? Are the two "characters" at opposite ends of a table in Study/Falling Man (Seated Figure III), from 1990, engaging in conversation or interrogation?

Such distinctions, in Trova, are not negligible. Even the seated figures in another 1990 series, some placed at round or square tables of solid steel, others at tables with glass tops, seem to me to be distinct candidates for interrogation subjects. Despite their solitude, they are awkwardly positioned, and like so many Trova figures, they are armless, so that the splayed hinged parts extending from their backs suggest figures in handcuffs, leaning toward tables where they will be invited not to dine but to spill secrets.

The wall text posted at the start of the show indicates that Trova's influences have been as diverse as Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Willem de Kooning, abstract expressionism, assemblage, and pop art. I was initially baffled by the nod to Bacon, a painter whose life and work endlessly fascinate me. But in retrospect, I see that it is the preoccupation with figures in isolation, subjected to various dramatic distortions (whether in paint or in metal), that links the two artists. Both speculate, in their own very different ways, on the horrors visited upon humanity as a species rather than as individuals.

Trova takes this indifference to distinguishing characteristics to drastic extremes. His figures lack faces and, usually, arms and genitals as well. It's worth noting that one of the exhibition's weakest works, a coy pair of bronzes called Male and Female Dancers (1986), also features much more defined individual characteristics than is typical for Trova. The artist's generic labeling of almost all his sculptures as Study/Falling Man also indicates that he's not much interested in his figures as individuals.

The problem with so much uniformity, as this exhibition makes painfully clear, is that the repetition eventually grows tedious. The show tends to favor groupings of two or three pieces that are more or less the same work rendered in different sizes, and after a while, the sculptures blend into clusters of small-medium-large, small-medium-large.

There is an unexpected benefit of this unintended monotony for those of us who have long admired the work for which Trova is best-known (the Boca Museum has three of his sculptures in its permanent collection, at least one of which is usually on display upstairs in the contemporary galleries). And that is that we are forced to seek variety in his work in other media. Here the exhibition shines.

The show includes several suites of Trova's lesser-known graphic work, including serigraphs that take the basic "falling man" motif and subject it to all kinds of permutations. It turns out that the artist has a delightful flair for color and composition that you'd never guess from the sculptures.

Most surprising of all is a trio of mixed-media assemblages from 1961, very early in Trova's career, that are about as far removed from his "falling men" as you could imagine. Conway Twitty Came, Blue Jean Figure, and Man in Fur Hat are wonderfully messy affairs in which the clothes literally make the men or, more accurately, suggest them. It's as if the ostensible subjects of the images have been stripped of their clothing and then dismissed, leaving the artist to re-create their presence. I have no idea whether Trova stopped dabbling in such droll, collage-like work when he embarked on the Study/Falling Man course he has pursued for more than four decades. As much as I like many of his "falling men," however, I would love to know where that other path might have taken him. That's the most tantalizing question raised by this retrospective.

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Michael Mills