Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone

 Williams College Museum of Art

By: - Jul 05, 2022

Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) announces the opening of Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone, a retrospective survey on view from July 15 through December 22, 2022, accompanied by a groundbreaking publication. Organized by Horace D. Ballard, former Curator of American Art at WCMA and currently the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art at Harvard Art Museums, the exhibition and catalog offer the first curatorial assessment of the entirety of Unger’s practice and highlight key works as culminating examples of her material experimentation.

Rising to prominence in the downtown New York art scene in the 1980s and 1990s, Mary Ann Unger (1945–1998) was skilled in graphic composition, watercolor, large-scale conceptual sculpture, and environmentally-responsive, site-specific interventions. An unabashed feminist dedicated to discourse and collective action, and an active member of the Guerrilla Girls, Unger was acknowledged as a pioneer of neo-expressionist sculptural form. Roberta Smith, writing in The New York Times at the time of the artist’s death, asserted that Unger’s “works occupied a territory defined by Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois. But the pieces combined a sense of mythic power with a sensitivity to shape that was all their own, achieving a subtlety of expression that belied their monumental scale.” To Shape a Moon from Bone reexamines the formal and cultural intricacies of Unger’s oeuvre, as well as the critical environmental themes suffusing her monumental installations. The exhibition repositions Unger within and against the male dominated New York sculpture scene in the last decades of the twentieth century.

To Shape a Moon from Bone is Unger’s first solo museum presentation in more than twenty years since the McDonough Museum of Art at Youngstown State University (Ohio) presented a fifteen-year retrospective in 2000. The artist’s monumental homage to prehistoric migration, Across the Bering Strait (1992–94), will be on view in concert with previously unseen works on paper and other sculptural works from the Mary Ann Unger Estate, as well as special loans from the Whitney Museum of American Art and Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, in order to reintroduce Unger’s expansive practice to a new generation. Works by Unger’s daughter Eve Biddle, artist and co-founder of the Wassaic Project, bring two generations of a family of artists—which includes Unger’s husband, noted photographer Geoffrey Biddle—into abundant conversation around memory and material evidence.

Unger’s unique typography of influences, materials, and signs span the history of art and cultural myth. The exhibition draws together works from the Williams College Museum of Art’s holdings of African, European, and Pre-Columbian art with over 60 works from the artist’s estate to thoroughly interrogate the timely issues of lineage, influence, and appropriation endemic to contemporary sculptural practice.

The publication serves as the first scholarly positioning of Mary Ann Unger within the cultural milieu of her time. Beginning with her studies with Leonard and Sandy DeLonga at Mount Holyoke, the catalog traces Unger’s life, travels, and studies as well as her inspirations and her extensive network of artists and mentors. An essay by art historian Zoe Dobuler, MA ’21, Programs Coordinator at Independent Curators International, provides groundbreaking interpretations of Unger’s Across the Bering Strait through the lens of science fiction and feminist discourses of prehistoric migration. A roundtable conversation among Ballard, Eve Biddle, and Sarah Montross, senior curator at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, situates Unger’s work in past, present, and future contexts.

“Mary Ann Unger sought connection and synergies across cultures, places, and peoples,” Ballard reflects. “Her materially-driven, yet conceptual practice evinces a kind of playing-while-thinking, a sense of capacious and rigorous world-building that gets at the animating force of sculpture’s immediacy: its mimetic sense of life. To research and reflect on Unger’s practice over four years, and to be able to share and celebrate this work with the world years on, is a gift.”

“This project builds upon Williams College Museum of Art’s longstanding commitment to the work of female artists, curators, and scholars, as well as our passion for advancing new scholarship,” states Pamela Franks, Class of 1956 Director. “With To Shape the Moon from Bone, we join the timely investigation undertaken by so many art museums in our cultural moment to expand the legacies of Minimalism and the archives of early-conceptual art practice to include women by assiduously building out the vast network of institutions, artists, and ideas that pervaded the New York art scene in the postwar period.”

To Shape a Moon from Bone will mark the unveiling of Unger’s Shanks (1996–97) in its now-permanent home at Williams. Shanks was one of Unger’s final sculptures and the first work that Ballard saw during a visit to the Mary Ann Unger Estate in March 2018. It became a catalyst for the deep, collaborative research that followed. In making this transformative acquisition for the museum’s collection, WCMA joins the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and the High Museum of Art as a steward of Mary Ann Unger’s work for future generations.

Exhibition Credit
Organized by Horace D. Ballard, the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art, Harvard Art Museums

On view
Williams College Museum of Art
July 15–December 22, 2022

Related programs
Friday, July 15, 5-8 p.m.: Opening reception of Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone, featuring music, refreshments, and the galleries open until 8 p.m.
Saturday, July 16, 11 a.m., Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall in the Bernhard Music Center, Williams College: Geoffrey Biddle, noted photographer and Mary Ann Unger’s husband, whose forthcoming publication Rock in a Landslide presents an intimate portrait of his life with Unger, in conversation with Horace D. Ballard, exhibition curator.

Exhibition catalog (Review copies available by request.)
Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone
Edited by Horace D. Ballard
With contributions by Eve Biddle, Zoe Dobuler, and Sarah Montross
Williams College Museum of Art (2022)
This monograph brings together images of the artist’s works with many never-before-published photographs of the artist by Unger’s husband, the noted photographer Geoffrey Biddle. Taking the reprinting of Roberta Smith’s 1999 obituary for Unger as a starting point, the essays provide the first full consideration of Unger, tracing her life, her studies and her network of artists and mentors. This catalog also includes an interview with Unger’s daughter, the artist Eve Biddle.