It has been more than a decade since the work of the late sculptor Mary Ann Unger was last exhibited. I, for one, was not familiar with the artist’s prolific output, as I would daresay would be the case with the majority of the contemporary art world. This is quite unfortunate, as a quick walkthrough of the gallery space at Maxwell Davidson, featuring early geometric watercolor studies, diagrams, and sculpture by the artist, proved that there is much still to be learned about this earnest and exacting feminine force.
On ViewMaxwell Davidson Gallery
June 14 – July 22, 2011
Prior to the artist’s untimely death in 1998, Mary Ann Unger was best known for her voluminous, corporeal sculptural forms. (Having secured a number of public commissions in the late ’80s and early ’90s, her work can be seen in such major collections as the Brooklyn and Philadelphia Museums of Art as well as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.) A large majority of the pieces on display at Maxwell Davidson, however, are from the late ’70s (prior to the artist’s achieved fame as a sculptor) and reveal an inquisitive and astute hand. Approximately 20 works on paper comprise the exhibition, along with one of Unger’s more famous sculptures, “Benchmarks” (1977), a triptych tour-de-force of interlocking tubular forms in bonded iron, the likes of which arguably rival any machismo-inflected gestures of the time. The drawings, on the other hand, display the delicate touch of a master draftsman, along with a tender sensibility for color and intricate patterning. Together, the works reveal a complex trajectory of artistic development and experimentation.
Raised by a family of engineers and initially seeking a degree in biochemistry, Unger had a natural predilection for mathematical formulas. This is most apparent in early drawings such as “Untitled” (1978), in which a maze of monochromatic interlocking grids coalesce to form an aerial view of what could easily be read as the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Miniature color charts no larger than the size of a pocket sketchbook pack a saturated punch, while “Cut Red” (1978) and a number of other untitled pieces from the same yearplay upon trilateral perfection, employing repetitive highlights of fluorescent color to accent the planar illusion of zigzagging cascades. Let your eyes go soft and the physicality of these forms literally jumps off the page.
But while Unger’s geometric flourishes evoke a plethora of art historical associations—from a formal kinship with the likes of Louise McCagg, Lee Bontecou, and Richard Serra, to her more organically charged finitude with painter Georgia O’Keefe—her painstaking penchant for meticulous mark making and saturated bursts of gradient color did not stem from any ideological belief system about the art making process (i.e. Sol LeWitt) or the role of the artist in society. Unlike her contemporaries, Unger’s optical studies stemmed directly from her utilitarian background in the sciences—that, and her incessant drive to create. In a conversation I had with Eve Biddle, Unger’s daughter and an executor of the estate (as well as an artist and curator in her own right), she fleshed out the connection between these tightly scripted drawings and her mother’s amorphous three-dimensional forms: “If you could only peel back the skin of the sculptures, you would find the same geometric armatures beneath.”
They say that history is written by the victors. One can only hope that this exhibition is the first step in recouping the art historical territory that is rightfully Unger’s to claim.