Organic forms carry art across generations

A form rests near the door, taller than human height. It’s rounded and textured like a burl of black walnut — but it has a suggestion of tone wood and tuning pegs. Mary Ann Unger had been studying the body of a kora when she made this sculpture in 1987, in a loft in the East Village in New York.

She abstracts the shape of a West African harp with 21 strings. A Malinke artist in Guinea or Gambia or Mali made the instrument for a child when Unger was a child, in the 1950s or 1960s — they dried the gourd and oiled the wood and inlaid the neck with cowrie shells, maybe in though the museum where she saw this kora does not know their name.

 

Unger called her own sculpture a flask, a container of memory and an echo of a woman’s body, said guest curator Horace Ballard, associate curator of American art at the Harvard Art Museums, on the night opening of To Carve a Moon from Bone this summer at the Williams College Museum of Art.

Ballard has curated the first solo show of Unger’s work in more than 20 years, working closely with her family. He brings together 82 works Unger made from 1977 to 1998, he said, alongside works by her daughter — the artist Eve Biddle, Williams College ’04.

And he sets them in conversation with works by African, European and Native and Indigenous artists from the WCMA collection.

He first came to Unger’s work five years ago, he said, on a visit to Eve and her father, the photographer Geoffrey Biddle. Ballard was Curator of American Art at WCMA then, and he began work on show originally for fall 2020, when the college was preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women among the student body.

As the pandemic stepped in and gave him time, he has written the first catalog and scholarly consideration of Unger’s work, exploring her ideas and her work in relationship with the artistic movements of her time.

“She has had reviews, essays and a beautiful obituary,” he said, “but this is the groundwork — where the themes are, visual connections, illusions …”

‘This is the groundwork — where the themes are, visual connections, illusions …’ — Horace Ballard, associate curator of American art at the Harvard Art Museums

He envisions the show alongside the book as an open, playful and colorful exploration, he said, and framed often in her own words — a place to show her at her most rigorous and invested.

This is one of the first instances of seeing more than 30 of her sculptures together. And he feels it is vital to show Unger at the height of her creative power and explore the full capacity of her work.

“… When we come to women artists, we often come to the end of their lives, not the great flowering of their lives,” he said.

He sets her work together with her daughter’s, across generations — sculpture Unger made while she was pregnant with Eve sits beside sculpture Eve has not seen in 20 or 30 years and works she has made in clay in the past few years, as an artist in her own right, thinking back on her mother’s work.

And Ballard has talked with Eve about her mother, as he and Eve worked together on this show.

“She says ‘my mother was a bad-ass,’” he said at the press tour, laughing. … “(Eve) would say, ‘She taught me a love of nature, a love of the grid of New York. Mom was such a connector.’ She sees a desire to connect, even across difference.”

In her lifetime, Unger fought for her work and creative life in a New York art world dominated by men. As Ballard follows her through time in his essay, She was living simply and sculpting with inexpensive materials she had to hand. She studied and worked among leading artists of her time, and she became a fierce advocate for women artists. As a member of the Guerrilla Girls, a group of creative and active makers, she spoke out for fair representation.

Now her work appears in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and more.

Sculpture takes on the tensile strength of bone in Mary Ann Unger's work at WCMA.
Sculpture by Mary Ann Unger

Sculpture takes on the tensile strength of bone in Mary Ann Unger's work at WCMA.

She experimented with many forms, Ballard said, and they influenced each other in her hands. In her life-sized, abstract work, she is known for the striated surfaces she formed in layering and wrapping. Though she made them from hydrocal plaster and metal armature, they look like wood and skin.

“We just see that layering,” he said, “the moments when she’ll turn to watercolor or gouache or graphite — her control, to make a perfect sphere in watercolor — it’s awe-inspiring, masterful and terrifying at the same time.”

At a time when many of her contemporaries were focusing on flat planes, rigid geometry and plastic, she was making work that calls to mind, for him, the symbiosis between a fungus and a plant — the structures mycelium and myth, “roots, cholla, stamens, saguaro …”

Like many Modernist artists, and many artists in her own generation, she would often shape a drawing or sculpture with a geometric grid, he said. Her contemporary, art critic Rosalind Krauss, saw a grid as a static, controlling device — “it is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” But Ballard sees Unger turning that understanding completely around.

“She draws organic forms from negative spaces in the grid,” he said.

‘… the gnarled fingers of an outstretched hand, the irregular forms of branches, bundles of nerves, roots, seeds and the bones of giants.’

She used the confines of Modernist structures to get outside them, to explore the spaces between, places in shadow, living structures. Ballard compares her sculpture to “… the gnarled fingers of an outstretched hand, the irregular forms of branches, bundles of nerves, roots, seeds and the bones of giants.”

She was mapping complex systems, he said. She joined artists Clark Richert, Merion Estes and Richard Kallweit, Gloria Klein and George Woodman, who formed the Criss-Cross cooperative, a group of painters and print-makers inspired by Buckminster Fuller and his idea that the human body “was defined … by the patterning of its materials.”

In this vein, Ballard said, Unger and her fellows studied the forms of DNA and other structural patterns, like fractals, and moved from them to think about broader systems in the ways human think and act — “like inequality based on gender and race—and the evocative power of musical notation.”

Unger studied the forms of DNA and other structural patterns, like fractals, to think about broader systems — ‘like inequality based on gender and race—and the evocative power of musical notation.’

Her work in steel and in pencil became a mathematical, meditative process for her, he said — she explored ideas with a quality of patterning and innovation he compares to an algorithm’s capacity to be elegant and self-learning and (self) iterative.

He would be interested to invite computer scientists and environmental scientists into the show, he said, and explore ways their fields can reveal new depths in her thinking.

“What came first,” he asked, “what did she layer, and at what level — and what we understand about the natural world and algorithms? If we were helping a computer to paint like her, what would we teach it? (It could give us) insight into how her gesture works …”

Mary Ann Unger's abstract sculpture shows interwoven curves at WCMA.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Mary Ann Unger's abstract sculpture shows interwoven curves at WCMA.

He finds Unger endlessly curious. She explored ideas from mathematics, engineering, animal biology, he said — mythology, and cultures around the world.

At WCMA, a tall form stands thewed like an elephant’s foreleg, tinged with deep blue. Unger made Ganesha in 1996-1997, Ballard said, in the last months of her ability to control her hands, invoking the many-handed, elephant-headed Hindu and Buddhist deity.

She researched world religions throughout her career, Ballard says in the text beside it. She was deeply interested in deities and observances that move across cultural borders and across space and take on new meanings over time.

Mary Ann Unger's abstract sculpture curve in tactile blue-black helixes.
Photo by Kate Abbott

Mary Ann Unger's abstract sculpture curve in tactile blue-black helixes.

“We may also talk about appropriation,” he said. “How can we see that she has grown, and how can we tell this is not the language we would use.”

Her massive work, Bering Strait, fills a room at wCMA with long, horizontal forms moving across the space. Unger named it for one place where people may have walked from one continent to another.

“We may have … our dreams of an interconnected world in the technological 21st century,” she wrote more than 30 years ago, “yet it is still the movements of people that make us aware of each other around the world: migration is arguably the strongest force towards the creation of a global village.”

She was thinking of the Jewish diaspora, Ballard said, and her family’s migration to this country. And as she thought of people moving across time and space, she thought of all that people carry with them, and who among them are carrying.

Standing among her reaching forms, he recalled Unger’s writing and Zoe Dobuler’s essay in the exhibition catalog. She links Unger’s ideas of migration with Elizabeth Fisher’s 1979 book, Woman’s Creation.

Fisher argues that the strongest tool for keeping a human community alive and growing was not a hunting spear (as many of her fellows were arguing then) — it was a carrier bag, a basket, something made and passed down to hold what people gathered as they walked. And the people who make baskets were and are often women. So she saw human civilization born from women carrying plants and fruits — and memory.

Women carry stories. Ballard and Dobuler echo the internationally honored novelist Ursula Le Guin, as she extends Fisher’s thoughts. Fisher wrote as a scholar; Le Guin as a storyteller, and she saw women playing a deep role in carrying culture. Women hold the future in their bodies, and in their pockets, and on their backs … in the tales they tell and the seeds they braid into their hair.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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