Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone at WCMA

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Installation view of Mary Ann Unger, WCMA

Power. Power, not bravado, not ego, but the power of intelligence, skill, fortitude, and vision is what Mary Ann Unger possessed and that is what is on exhibition at Williams College Museum of Art (referred to as WCMA). Throughout her life she defied limitations frequently imposed overtly and subconsciously on women. Attending Mt Holyoke College in the mid-60s, she studied biochemistry when few women were found in science departments, then transferred to studio art taking up welding, casting and carving. This was not the typical route for women during the mid-to late 60s. She traveled on her own to North Africa and this journey greatly influenced her work. Returning to New York she completed an MFA at Columbia and launched her career as a post minimalist sculptor, finding herself in the minority amongst a sea of men.

Climbing the curved steps within WCMA the first room you hit is behind a wall. Don’t miss it—Across the Bering Strait (1994-96) is breathtaking. It occupies the entire gallery and proves a monument can be inside a gallery as well as in a town square. 34 enormous outstretched abstract tube-like sculptures resting on supports appear to be grasping forward, propelling into the unknown. Made using wire steel armatures covered in hydrocal, a type of plaster of paris with a touch of cement and graphite, Unger used her innate engineering prowess to create large scale works that she could build and were light enough to move and manipulate. This was in contrast to her male counterparts who generally reverted to outside fabrication. At times the dark hued structures seem to conjure arms and bodies and at other times, the image of an otherworldly armada floating in an abyss of desperation. This is a homage to immigration and its power to transform and enrich humanity. Though this installation was created in the mid 90s it is as prescient today as it was then and before.

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Mary Ann Unger, Across the Bering Strait, 1992–94. Hydrocal and cheesecloth over welded steel with pigment and graphite.

Moving into the larger gallery, it is as if you have entered a sanctuary. The pieces are ingeniously installed as though you have come upon the remains of a never before seen ancient temple. There are chunky, burnt sienna, cylindrical shapes linked and supporting each other installed on the floor of the gallery. Commanding nothing but awe, Shanks (1996-97), recently purchased by WCMA, is three, almost nine foot, organic, elongated, structures inspired by lamb bones that lean against the wall supported only by mounts that are an integral part of the installation.

The drawings framed on the wall, though not sketches for the sculptures, could easily constitute another exhibition focused just on the unique quality of drawings by an accomplished sculptor.

Deities seem to reign throughout the exhibition. Supplicant, 1985, a work that can only be described as a primal scream inspired by mythical goddesses guard the entrance to the 1954 Gallery. Arms are outstretched, head thrown back, mouth wide open is supported on a torso of rose-colored breasts. It is very difficult not to make the connection that this was created the same year,1985, that Mary Ann Unger was diagnosed with breast cancer. Unger did not permit this disease to interfere with living, rather she used the experience to make her work more organic and innovative. On a shelf mid gallery are small pieces titled fragments, made over a period of 20 summers while vacationing in Maine. These small gestural figures made using the ancient process of lost wax casting bring to mind Alberto Giacometti’s long thin animated works.

Enriching the exhibition is the contribution of works by Eve Biddle, Mary Ann Unger’s daughter who is an artist, and co-founder of the Wassaic Project, an artist residency, exhibition space and education center, located in the hamlet of Wassaic. The phrase “the chestnut does not fall far from the tree,” is an apt description. Following in her mother’s pioneering spirit, Biddle’s pieces are alive and elegant. Made of malleable and accessible materials such as clay, her sculptures seem fragile and beautiful.

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Eve Biddle, New Relics: Chain, 2021. Ceramic with glaze.

Mary Ann Unger died at the age of 53. 13 years following her initial diagnosis of cancer. In that period she continued to work creating monumental site specific public art, critically acclaimed installations, drawings and watercolors. She won several commissions and awards. She was an active feminist, a Guerrilla Girl, and an inspiration to all women who hesitate. She never did.

Kudos to Horace D. Ballard, the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art, Harvard Art Museums, and Eve Biddle for making this tremendous gift of an exquisitely curated, organized and installed exhibition. In addition, special recognition goes to WCMA for their staunch support of women’s art. It cannot be lost that as you approach the museum you are greeted by the permanent installation of Louise Bourgeois’s Eyes, and a few blocks away, a sculpture by Ursula von Rydingsvard, peer and fellow pioneer of Mary Ann Unger. Jenny Holzer’s Installation is also part of public art on campus. This is just the beginning.

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Mary Ann Unger, Shanks, 1996–97. Hydrocal over steel. 

All photo courtesy of the WCMA museum

Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone is on view at Williams College Museum of Art till 12/22. 15 Lawrence Hall Drive, Williamstown, MA. Open and free to the public Tues. thru Sun. 10am – 5pm