Exhibition brings the artist’s dynamic sculpture into conversation with the museum’s global collection and work by Unger’s daughter, artist Eve Biddle
WILLIAMSTOWN, Massachusetts—The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) is delighted to announce Mary Ann Unger: To Shape a Moon from Bone, a project consisting of a retrospective survey on view from July 15 through December 22, 2022, as well as 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.”
“One of the joys that sometimes comes from working so closely on a survey exhibition in partnership with an artist’s estate and gallery is the opportunity to make an acquisition that has transformative power for the collection,” continues Franks. 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. 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.
“It’s so exciting to present this sweeping investigation of Unger’s work here on the Williams College campus—and within the arts-rich region of the Berkshires—in a small-town community with global reach,” states Lisa Dorin, WCMA’s Deputy Director for Curatorial Engagement. “The timeless quality of Unger’s multidisciplinary work resounds in the contemporary moment in poignant, evocative, even prescient ways, perhaps best exemplified by the artist’s own words.” In Unger’s artist statement for the 1994 debut of Across the Bering Strait at Trans Hudson Gallery in Jersey City, she wrote the following:
‘Across the Bering Strait’ is about the past, but it is also about the present. Populations are shifting all over the world today, refugees from battle or oppression, hopeful immigrants and adventurers pursuing dreams. They carry their nationalities and their cultures with them just as they carry their possessions. We may have our hopes for an information superhighway and our dreams of an interconnected world in the technological twenty-first century, yet it is still the movements of peoples that makes us aware of each other around the world: migration is arguably the strongest force towards the creation of a global village. Just as it made the world larger thirty thousand years ago, it is still people moving, migrating, and even literally walking, that is making the world smaller today.
Organized by Horace D. Ballard, the Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. Associate Curator of American Art, Harvard Art Museums
Williams College Museum of Art
July 15–December 22, 2022
Exhibition catalogue (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.
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: Geoffrey Biddle, noted photographer and Mary Ann Unger’s husband, whose latest publication Rock in a Landslide presents an intimate portrait of his life with Unger, in conversation with Horace D. Ballard, exhibition curator.
About Williams College Museum of Art
The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) creates and inspires exceptional experiences with art that are integral to a liberal arts education, lifelong learning, and human connection. The Museum is a partner in nurturing the cross-disciplinary arts in support of a liberal arts education; advancing the academic and experiential preparation of arts leaders; enriching the cultural ecosystem; engaging artists; and creating a shared learning community that spurs new thinking, creative making, and civic engagement. Located on Main Street in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the Williams College campus, the museum draws on the collaborative and multidisciplinary ethos of the surrounding college to enliven the more than 15,000 works in its growing collection. Admission is free. Current hours and more info at artmuseum.williams.edu.
Joellen Adae, Director of Communications, Williams College Museum of Art
[email protected] | 203-641-0031
Rebecca Dravis, Communications Manager, Williams College Museum of Art
[email protected] | 413-597-3127
Brent Foster Jones, Media Relations for Mary Ann Unger Estate
[email protected] | 917-280-6217