Movement patterns by Mary Ann Unger – frieze.com | Candle Made Easy

More than 20 years have passed since the last museum survey dedicated to the work of the stunning sculptor and illustrator Mary Ann Unger. This long-overdue exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art, sensitively curated by Horace D. Ballard, spans two decades of Unger’s materially restless artistic production from 1975 to 1997. It brings together a wide range of works – including her bronze torsos cast from twigs, her austere Rasterized watercolors and her large-scale sculptural abstractions – “To Shape a Moon from Bone” – bring Unger’s exploratory ethos to the fore as it highlights the investments in modularity, biomorphism and tactility that have permeated her work throughout her career.

Mary Ann Unger, benchmarks, 1997, glued iron, each 107 × 53 × 48 cm. Courtesy: Mary Ann Unger Estate

The retrospective is organized by Ungers without a strict chronological or material classification plant in rhyming clusters revolving around a theme, shape, or gesture. One grouping underscores Unger’s preoccupation with systematic and structural patterns, which was most clearly manifested around the time of her involvement with Criss-Cross, an artist cooperative associated with the pattern and decoration movement in the mid-1970s and early 1980s. Two delicate watercolours, both titled benchmarks (1977) each show a series of embracing tubular shapes. A sculpture, also titled benchmarks (1977) shows four pairs of the same interlocking tubes, this time made of bonded iron. The watercolors do not appear to be studies; Working through the same form in different media, Unger explored the repetitive elements that are held in tension and underpin all types of architecture.

Mary Ann Unger, Untitled (Study for Hexagonal Quintet), 1978. Watercolor and pencil on paper.  20 1⁄2 x 26 3⁄4 in.  Estate of Mary Ann Unger
Mary Ann Unger, Untitled (study for hexagonal quintet)1978, watercolor and pencil on paper,
52×68cm. Courtesy: Mary Ann Unger Estate

In the mid-1970s, Unger began bending, weaving, or otherwise processing aluminum mesh into architectural and organic sculptures. Wall mounted examples loosely reminiscent of the rib cage and spine led to Red Swirls (1980), a schematic or stop-motion sequence of five increasingly luminous and compressed arcuate spikes, precisely cut from plywood and painted various shades of red. While the artist often left wooden or steel frameworks visible in her more architectural works, in the late 1980s she began to encase her steel fixtures in a textured skin of layered cheesecloth dipped in plaster. shafts (1996–97), a sculpture made using this technique, consists of an imposing trio of eight-foot-tall white verticals that resemble leg bones. These colossal, tapered forms, displayed alongside related bone drawings, lean against the wall with apparent ease over brackets that simulate socket joints.

Mary Ann Unger, Fragments No. 21 (Leonard Bernstein), 1990. Bronze.  6 1/2x6x5 in.  Estate of Mary Ann Unger
Mary Ann Unger, Fragments #21 (Leonard Bernstein), 1990, bronze, 17 × 15 × 13cm. Courtesy: Mary Ann Unger Estate

The expansive installation About the Bering Strait (1992–94) features more than 30 large, gray sculptural elements—made of dipped fabric on armatures—reminiscent of torsos or limbs in sober post-lintel arrangements. As they cradle and support each other, these biomorphic forms do not reflect the bonds within a single person, but rather the painstaking and loving connections between bodies. The work, which Unger described in an artist statement as “an abstract sculpture about migration”. […] cause[ing] Memories of Our Prehistory’ was originally accompanied by a soundscape inspired by Tibetan and Inuit chants.

View of Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bones, Williams College Museum of Art
‘Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone’, 2022, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Williams College Museum of Art

Tucked away in a corner of the overview are six modest ceramic sculptures—tubular tangles reminiscent of entrails, or elongated shapes reminiscent of armor—next to a related print. All are part of the New Relics series (since 2014) created by Unger’s daughter, artist Eve Biddle, in response to her mother’s plant. A smaller concurrent exhibition, curated by William Hathaway at Unger’s former Manhattan home and workspace, blends Unger’s sculptures and works on paper with photographs of the artist and her family taken by her husband, photographer Geoffrey Biddle, who a darkroom in New York maintained attic. The intermingling of works suggests forms of artistic creation and thought that recognize and embrace a variety of connections, networks and dialogues, laying the groundwork for a considered display of the artist’s beautiful and far-reaching practice.

See Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone at Williams College Art Museum, Williamstown, USA, through December 22. “The Sword in the Stone” can be viewed by appointment at the Mary Ann Unger EstateNew York, USA, through December.

Main image: Mary Ann Unger with a disc sander on the roof of her studio, Third Street, New York, 1977.
Courtesy: the artist; Photo: Geoffrey Biddle

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