By Charles Guiliano
Are visitors supposed to experience some kind of guilty pleasure if they find Mary Ann Unger’s Through the Bering Strait powerfully bewitching?
In 1985, the Museum of Modern Art set up An international survey of painting and sculpture. Only 13 women out of a total of 169 artists were included, leading to the formation of Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous protest group.
A poster was then created by the troupe which listed hundreds of women in the visual arts, including artists, curators, critics and art historians. Looking through the roll call, I recognized maybe 20% of the names, including Mary Ann Unger (1945-1998). (At the time of his death, Unger was a member of the Guerrilla Girls.)
In the director’s preface to Mary Ann Unger: Making a Moon from Bones (until December 22), the artist’s first retrospective in 20 years, Pamela Franks writes: “The project builds on the Williams College Museum of Art’s decades of dedication to the work of women artists, curators and scholars. With Make a moon out of bones we join the timely investigation undertaken by so many art museums in our cultural age, to extend the legacy of minimalism and the record of early conceptual art practices to include women.
The project began four years ago when Williams curator Horace Ballard got in touch with artist Eve Biddle, a former student of Williams and daughter of artist and photographer Geoffrey Biddle. Ballard has since been appointed Theodore E. Stebbins Jr. Associate Curator of American Art for the Harvard Art Museums.
A key work in the exhibition is the heartbreaking Supplicant (1985), an expressionist sculpture created with hydrocal, a super strong version of plaster. A head is thrown back, mouth open in extreme anguish. The torso is made up of a vertical row of four bullet-shaped breasts. It evokes Diana of Ephesus, the goddess of fertility, but with a myriad of breasts.
After a 14-year battle with breast cancer, Unger died at the age of 53. New York Times obituary, critic Roberta Smith wrote that “the works (of Mary Ann Unger) occupied a territory defined by Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois. But the pieces combined a sense of mythical power with a sensibility to form all their own, achieving a subtlety of expression that belied their monumental scale.
Unger has created several architectonic and neo-constructivist public art commissions. At Mount Holyoke, she moved from science/technology to fine art. After a 10-year hiatus, she earned an MFA in 1975 from Columbia University, where she studied with Ronald Bladen and George Sugarman.
At the end of the 1980s, his works Temple and Hive Temple were added to the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College and Sculpture Gardens at Lehigh University, respectively. In 1989, she was commissioned by the city of Tampa to create The wave. His Ode to Tatlin was commissioned by the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College in 1991.
In 1989 she was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship, and would be again in 1995; she was also a resident scholar at Yaddo in 1980 and 1994, and in 1992 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
The Williams College Museum of Art installation is dense, eclectic and obscure. Many unlabeled drawings generate confusion. There is a selection of works by Eve Biddle as well as contextualized works by other artists in the museum’s collection. The curator wants visitors and students to think for themselves about what they see – but there’s a lot to unpack.
For many of his drawings, Unger used grids as a way to explore systemic abstraction and structuring. There are also interlocking metal sculptures that reflect this approach.
A seismic shift occurred after Unger’s self-referential breakthrough in 1985. Other totemic works in hydrocal followed, with many forms of the goddess and the spine evoking Bourgeois’ work.
A key construction was one of his last, hocks (1996-97), which was acquired by WCMA. It is made up of three massive bone-shaped objects, cradle-like structures designed to lean against a wall.
Unger also made a number of small, stick-shaped bronze expressionist pieces. Hydrocal could be weathered to look like bronze, but large works were beyond his means. She worked alone in a 2,000 square foot loft. The space included her husband’s darkroom and living facilities. They later purchased property in upstate New York. A major rationale for this reassessment of Unger’s art is the gallery that contains his singular work. Through the Bering Strait. Inspired by the hydrocal, it features over 30 pigmented posts and lintels. When Ballard first encountered this ambitious piece, his response was “Wow!” In that nanosecond, he engaged in the Unger show.
In his artist statement, Unger wrote:
Through the Bering Strait concerns the past, but also the present. People move around the world today, refugees from battle or oppression, hopeful immigrants and adventurers pursuing their dreams. They take their nationalities and their cultures with them as they take their possessions. We may have our hopes of an information highway and our dreams of an interconnected world in the technological 21st century, but it is always the movements of people that make us aware of each other in the world: the migration is arguably the most powerful force towards the creation of a global village. Just as he made the world bigger thirty thousand years ago, it is still people moving, migrating and even literally walking that make the world smaller today.
Unger was inspired by her Jewish heritage as well as how ancient indigenous peoples crossed from Asia to the Americas. Initially, the work was exhibited with exotic lighting and a soundtrack of Tibetan and Inuit songs.
Grouping and density increase in back and forth work. The long segments of hydrocal-soaked fabric evoke metaphors of work, burden and transportation. Migrants have to take everything with them.
Unger’s motivation for this play is heroic and admirable, but in the current climate of critical discourse Through the Bering Strait must negotiate a minefield of problems. The problem of appropriation is at the forefront. The act of an artist from one dominant culture claiming to tell the traumatic story of another, more contested culture, is dismissed as a form of creative theft by proponents of ‘cancelled culture’.
Ballard and Zoe Dobuler’s essays in the show’s catalog articulate this difficulty in detail. There are references to the complexities of “The Carry Bag Theory of Evolution”. Ballard chose to cut the problematic soundtrack and minimize the lighting.
That said, are visitors supposed to feel some sort of guilty pleasure if they find Through the Bering Strait powerfully bewitching? Ironically, this paradigmatic work may be a reason to reposition Unger in the history of art. Does the WCMA help achieve this goal – with a damning asterisk?
Charles Julien published his seventh book, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: 1970 to 2020 an oral history. He publishes and edits Berkshire Fine Arts.