Mary Ann Unger, Across the Bering Strait (detail), 1992–94. Hydrocal and cheesecloth over welded steel with pigment and graphite, dimensions variable. Photo: Mary Ann Unger Estate

Mary Ann Unger

Williamstown, Massachusetts

Williams College Museum of Art

While on family vacations between 1986 and 1994, Mary Ann Unger started plying brown wax into small, lumpy figurines. Eventually cast in bronze, they became the “Fragments” series—50 palm-size anthropomorphic sculptures that individually scream, dance, pray, stretch, and reach. In Unger’s retrospective “To Shape a Moon from Bone” (on view through December 22, 2022), 15 of these works are carefully displayed along an eye-level shelf, where their richly hand-worked surfaces can be best appreciated. Though among the smallest of Unger’s works in the exhibition, these forms offer outsize evidence of her powerful gestures and sensitive touch with materials. Curated by Horace Ballard and featuring works by artists who influenced Unger, as well as by her daughter, Eve Biddle, “To Shape a Moon from Bone” presents a practice infused with a feminist ethos of support.

Unger’s intertwined roles as mother, activist, and curator, as well as artist, foreshadowed those of today’s cultural workers, who often juggle organizing, administration, and educational work in addition to art-making. In the early 1970s, Unger established a studio in New York’s East Village, where, between 1975 and her untimely death from cancer in 1998, she created the biomorphically abstract sculptures and drawings on view in “To Shape a Moon from Bone.” The loft is where she made her life with her husband, the photographer Geoffrey Biddle, and where they raised their daughter; it’s also where she schemed feminist interventions into the male-dominated New York art world as one of the Guerrilla Girls.

Much of Unger’s work is (literally) intertwined, with discrete parts knotting or notching together to create a whole. Benchmarks (1977), for instance, consists of a triptych of intersections in bonded steel, each a rounded, abstract crisscross. In all three, a curving tubular form rests easily atop a bottom twin. Two Untitled drawings from the same year mirror this bloated, angular cross shape, revealing Unger’s mathematical precision and interest in the interplay between geometric and natural forms. She continually returned to certain motifs, her material experimentation bringing a fresh verve to familiar elements. Everyday household materials are tender in Unger’s hands, like aluminum screen becoming a braided ribcage of interlacing mesh or a gently accordioned arc in two Untitled works from 1979. Wood likewise feels soft in her treatment, as in Red Vertebrae (1980), a series of painted plywood spines that bend at varying angles off the wall. These works are complemented by examples from Eve Biddle’s ceramic “New Relics” series (2017, 2020–21), which similarly explores couplings of spines and ribcages.

The body and its bones were perhaps Unger’s most recurrent themes or motifs—she used them even before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985. That year, she created Supplicant, a pinkish figure inspired by the mythological Daphne, with its head turned skyward, its open mouth contorted into a scream. The body itself consists of four stacked breasts reaching outward, flanked by stunted wings for arms. Crafted from Hydrocal over a steel armature with pigments, Supplicant is raw and thoroughly textured, presaging the distinctive layered process that Unger would refine over the coming years. In Ganesha (1996–97) and Shanks (1996–97), she soaked porous cheesecloth in Hydrocal, wrapping it over steel armatures and coloring it with pigment to achieve subtly rough surfaces that recall the smooth cragginess of bone. As is often the case with Unger’s work, there is a system of relational reliance built into Ganesha and Shanks, both of which rest against the wall in order to stand.

Across the Bering Strait (1992–94) exemplifies Unger’s dexterity with her chosen process, as well as her ability to use sculptural supports as an aesthetic. In this monumental work, hulking lengths of steel wrapped in metal-toned, Hydrocal-soaked cheesecloth rest and stack on a series of wishbone-shaped supporting forms, placed as if in progression. Installed in a separate room, Across the Bering Strait figures as Unger’s magnum opus, a poetic contending with past, present, and future migration. Like the “Fragments” series, Across the Bering Strait intimately reveals Unger’s unshakable hand in working surface, texture, and mass into animated forms of support systems.

“Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation” is on view at Davidson Gallery in New York January 12–February 18, 2023.