Curatorial narratives about artists who died prematurely sometimes make the mistake of magnifying the significance of illness. The life and work of an artist—often one who is being rediscovered after years at the margins—can become wrongfully overdetermined by the tragic circumstances surrounding their death.
Because Mary Ann Unger (1945–1998) passed away at the age of fifty-three after a thirteen-year battle with breast cancer, one might be tempted to treat the artist—whose distinctive abstract sculptures and works on paper examine transcultural histories, imagery, and environmental issues—in this exact way. Yet what is so valuable about “To Shape a Moon from Bone,” Unger’s first solo museum presentation in more than twenty years, is the refusal of Horace D. Ballard, the show’s organizer, to fall into this trap, his insistence that great art emerges not from illness but through the wisdom that living is coextensive with dying. Indeed, cancer was the context, rather than the precondition, for Unger’s moving mature works.
The retrospective’s rich yet concise selection of sculptures, drawings, prints, and watercolors reveals how certain forms relocate and morph across media, time, and space. For example, we encounter an untitled sculpture from 1975 comprising five long hollow cylindrical strands of aluminum wire mesh that are elegantly and loosely plaited. Mounted on the wall in such a way as to dramatize its shadows, the work, at once delicate and sturdy, invites gendered somatic associations, resembling a succession of clavicles or even Medusa’s serpentine locks (and the way they evoke female pubic hair in Freud’s infamous 1922 essay on the subject). The sculpture is accompanied by an untitled graphite drawing from 1976 of roughly the same size, rendered with smooth precision. Though clearly inspired by the former, the latter is more than a translation from one medium to another; it’s something stranger and uniquely separate, like an illustration of some alien bodily organ floating in space. Hanging side by side, the pieces bask in curious interplays among shape, material, and affect.
While Unger made everything from tiny sculptures to massive public commissions, the exhibition’s most epic work is also its most breathtaking. Spread across an entire gallery, Across the Bering Strait, 1992–94—avast meditation on the age-old phenomenon of migration—features several laboriously crafted components that are the artist’s signature: cheesecloth-coated welded-steel armatures that have been saturated with pigmented Hydrocal plaster. Calling to mind bandaged limbs, bundled twigs, fat-knuckled fingers, and bloated earthworms, the figures look like a colony of ants carrying food, eggs, or dead bodies. In this scene of communion and resilience, of holding and being held, Unger gives monumental power to expressions of vulnerability that seem born out of sickness and disability. I, for one, cannot look at the installation without thinking of Pepe Espaliú’s poignant 1992 performance Carrying—in which the HIV-positive Spanish artist, who died in 1993, enlisted his friends to transport him, without letting his feet touch the ground, across the streets of Madrid and San Sebastián—or of the limp bodies forcibly removed from the countless ACT UP die-ins.
Indeed, the show draws viewers in by encouraging them to connect Unger’s art to other types of historical and contemporaneous objects, from an ancient Peruvian vessel and a Yoruba figurine to a sculptural model by Louise Bourgeois. A catholicity of things stimulated her interests in geometry, abstraction, and global iconographies for more than three decades. Several items from the Williams College Museum of Art’s permanent collection are on display to illustrate these formal and conceptual overlaps. Also included in the show are a few ceramic works from “New Relics,” 2017–, a series by Eve Biddle, Unger’s daughter, that tenderly salute her mother’s art. Though Unger’s place in art history has yet to be established, this stunning exhibition sets the stage for a critical reassessment of her ever-vibrant and undeniably relevant work.
— Jackson Davidow