A Mother and Daughter Find Each Other in Art

Mary Ann Unger’s “Benchmarks” (1977), three thick, russet-colored twists of bonded steel each cradling a twin part, are today placed in the front window of her East Village studio. On view as part of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation, an installation of Unger’s work alongside that of her daughter, the artist, organizer, and co-founder of Wassaic Project, Eve Biddle, “Benchmarks”was made in this exact East Third Street studio, where Biddle grew up. Organized by Ylinka Barrotto, the exhibition demonstrates both mother’s and daughter’s aesthetic affinity for surface and support systems. Moreover, the show evinces how artists can foster each other’s practices through collaboration and reciprocity, and how doing so has become a valid part of studio art in the generations between Unger’s artistic career and Biddle’s.

Community and collaboration were intrinsic to Unger’s practice as she worked in her studio, honing the loosely bodily, cylindrical, or geometrical forms that she explored throughout her career before her untimely death in 1998. Throughout the 1970s, as she established herself in New York, she steadfastly labored to build her her practice as an artist working with ambitious, materials-driven sculpture, as well as building her studio on East Third Street (literally, she renovated it by hand with her partner, photographer Geoffrey Biddle, after moving there in 1975). Unger had plenty of women peers (Ursula von Rydingsvard and Petah Coyne among them), many of whom would become her compatriots as they formed the Guerilla Girls in the 1980s. But male Minimalist sculptors had their heyday in 1970s New York, their works perpetuating the idea of art as separate from everyday life, their practices maintaining the myth of the singular, heroic artist-genius toiling away in an isolated studio. As Unger developed her art within this scene, she distinguished herself as a supporter of artists going against that grain. She organized exhibitions and conversations around the work of like-minded artists, often female-identifying and people of color.

Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate; drawings by Mary Ann Unger

By the late 1970s, Unger was consistently creating drawings and sculptures that embraced mark-making, materiality, and abstract, biomorphic figuration. Drawings from this time on view in Generation, such as 1978’s “Untitled,” a vibrant, colorful quilt-like pattern of interlocking round and rectangular shapes, demonstrate her interest in form and texture. Unger incorporated a rounded rectilinear shape even in her more figurative work, as in two untitled, jewel-toned watercolors from 1977. In one, a seated human figure pulls at its leg with a bone-like arm. The other is a close-up view of a mouth, lips and teeth framed by bands of color, their edges a velvety blur. Unger straddled this line between figuration and materials-driven abstraction throughout her career, just as she balanced the often competing duties of artist, curator, administrator, organizer, wife, and, with the birth of her daughter, Eve, mother. 

Today the hand-built home studio houses the Mary Ann Unger Estate, consisting of much of her work and archive. The domestic space is very much an integral piece of both. Eve Biddle took her first steps here and became an adult here; simultaneously, her mother created work at the nexus of painting and sculpture, often taking walls as its literal supports. In “Water Spout” (1980–81), a set of three bright, primary-colored wooden vertebrae forms cascade from the wall to the floor, expanding possibilities of color and form through material exploration. Likewise, “Talking Stick” (1996–97), an almost bone-like length of rough-hewn, hulking hydrocal over steel, is placed delicately against the wall. That these works need a surface or support to exist poignantly evokes Unger’s formal and conceptual interest in connection points, a concern inherited by Biddle. 

“Water Spout” and “Talking Stick” have a sense of defiance to them, resisting gravity as well as the idea that serious artwork can’t be made within the domestic sphere — a myth that has only been debunked in recent decades. Unger’s inclusive approach to abstract large-scale sculptures like “Talking Stick” is staggering in light of the brash zeitgeist of the times, when, for instance, Richard Serra felt it unthinkable to consider workers in the buildings near New York’s Federal Plaza who didn’t want to live with his “Tilted Arc” (1981) cutting through their communal outdoor space. Just as concerned with surface and volume as Serra, Unger nevertheless brought others into her making, be they family or friends, and used sculpture to join together rather than separate. 

Mary Ann Unger in 1976 by Geoffrey Biddle. Courtesy of the photographer and the Mary Ann Unger Estate
Mary Ann Unger in 1976 photographed by Geoffrey Biddle (courtesy the photographer and the Mary Ann Unger Estate)

Like her mother, Biddle considers support as a formal and conceptual conceit. “New Relics” (2022) stretches off of the wall like lungs expanded with air, while “New Relics: Trilobite” (2021) is modeled after a fossil, but also suggests an impression on a surface made by a rib cage. These are both ceramics, a medium Biddle often turns to, alongside others traditionally considered as craft, such as glass or printmaking. Barrotto’s thoughtful installation weaves the work of mother and daughter along formal and conceptual lines. Biddle’s surfaces are passages of kneads and knots arching into forms. Like Unger’s, they are replete with the marks of touch, as if they were evidence of their maker’s existence.

Biddle is also a convener and supporter of other artists. Since founding Wassaic Project with Elan Bogarin and Bowie Zunino in 2008, it has hosted hundreds of artist residencies, exhibitions, and educational programs that take collaboration between artists and communities as their guiding principle. Exploring Unger’s oeuvre and archive in her studio and home, it’s easy to see how her practice generated the possibility of collaborative projects like Wassaic. What is more remarkable — and radical — is that Unger was quietly collaborative decades before reciprocity was codified in the relational practices of the 1990s and social practices of the 2000s. Unger worked against the idea of the solitary (male) genius, exemplifying a supportive studio practice that is so necessary in today’s corporatized climate, creating a model of life and work that empowers artists like Biddle and her generation today. 

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Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate; pictured: Eve Biddle, “New Relics: Trilobite” (2021)
Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate. Courtesy of the Estate 02
Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate
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Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate
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Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate; watercolors by Mary Ann Unger
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Installation view of Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation at the Mary Ann Unger Estate; works by Eve Biddle (left) and Mary Ann Unger (right)

Eve Biddle | Mary Ann Unger: Generation continues at the Mary Ann Unger Estate (5 East Third Street, East Village, Manhattan) through September 15. The exhibition was curated by Ylinka Barrotto. 

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