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Martha Whittington Photo: Akash Das

Social Sculpture

A Dialogue with Martha Whittington


By Robert Stalker


Martha Whittington, Winnowing’s Daughter, 2020, Brass, Cane, Cotton Twine, Mahogany Wood, Raw Canvas

Sculptor Martha Whittington’s work is characterized by a fascination with materiality and a dedication to craft. She is fond of recalling how, as a young girl, when her brothers were given knives as gifts, she went out to her father’s workshop and made her own knife out of a broken hacksaw blade and popsicle sticks, using a hand grinder from her father’s toolset. Later, as a teenager, her affinity for this kind of handicraft was given a boost when was sent to live with one of her brothers, a furniture maker, in Clarkston, Georgia. At the time, she says, it felt like punishment. But the experience of working in her brother’s furniture making business was to have a lasting influence on Whittington. She has worked in a variety of media, including wood, felt, metal, and leather, gravitating often toward industrial materials. Whittington usually begins by creating maquettes, scale models of what is to come. She then constructs the larger-scale pieces, often manipulating and shaping the materials through a wide variety of techniques, including dyeing, stamping, weaving, forging, felting, and welding. Lately, she’s been experimenting with molten glass in a small foundry in her studio. She likens her fondness for materials and her almost anthropological curiosity about the way things are made to the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s and those artists’ use of nontraditional materials and techniques to challenge the hegemony of painting and sculpture. It’s the materials themselves that seem to drive her — and the joy of experimentation. “That’s where the discovery begins,” she says.

Robert Stalker 

Atlanta, Georgia


Martha Whittington, Winnowing’s Daughter, 2020, Brass, Cane, Cotton Twine, Mahogany Wood, Raw Canvas

Robert Stalker: Your work generally, and more specifically your work with felt, in, for example, the installation Red: Charted (2023), evokes for me two artists, Joseph Beuys and Robert Morris. Would you say that your work bears any relation to these two artists? How would you say you connect to what Beuys dubbed “social sculpture”?

Martha Whittington: Yes, my work with felt, like in the installation Red: Charted, 2023, has some common ground with the work of Joseph Beuys and Robert Morris, even though I wouldn't say I'm directly influenced by them.

Robert Morris's minimalist approach and use of industrial materials like felt, steel, fiberglass, and plywood connect with my focus on the essential qualities of the materials. His interest in the physical and temporal relationship between the viewer and the sculptural object is similar to my approach of exploring raw materials and geometric forms in space. For instance, in Red: Charted, my use of geometric shapes and careful arrangements in space reflects Morris's emphasis on direct, unadorned forms.

As for Joseph Beuys and his idea of "social sculpture," my practice aligns with his vision of structuring space and materials to create unity and balance. Although I don't directly follow Beuys's approach, his belief in art's potential to transform society by shaping the environment resonates with my goal of fostering interconnected relationships within my installations. I aim to honor each object's uniqueness while creating harmony and balance in the space.

My work encourages viewers to engage thoughtfully with the space and materials, emphasizing how everything is connected. This approach invites viewers into a more mindful and holistic experience, which is in line with Beuys's ideas of conscious and transformative art.

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Martha Whittington, Red: Charted, 2022, Installation

RS: In a now-famous essay from 1968 entitled “Anti-Form,” Robert Morris speaks of “a direct investigation of the properties of … materials” and “a reconsideration of the use of tools in relation to material.” You have a real curiosity not just about materials and materiality but also about tools, even going so far as to design and build surveying instruments and calipers, among other devices and implements.  Can you tell us a little bit about where this fascination with materials and tools comes from and what you see as its significance for your work?

MW: For instance, in Line of Sight (2017-18), I investigate the boundaries and dimensions of the gallery space using tools inspired by surveying instruments. By combining materials like brass, wood, and twine, I create specialized devices that allow me to measure and map the environment with accuracy. This approach, which aligns with Robert Morris's emphasis on the properties of materials and their relationships, brings a sense of control and clarity to the space, highlighting the interplay between the materials and their surroundings.

In Winnowing's Daughter (2020), I play with shapes that suggest agrarian tools such as inlets, outlets, pipes, and sieves. By working with raw materials like brass, cane, cotton twine, and raw canvas, I create unadorned forms that are hand-bound, woven, and stitched. These shapes carry an implied function, exploring themes of utility and practicality in a way that resonates with Joseph Beuys's concept of using art to transform society. My work aims to engage viewers in a thoughtful exploration of these relationships, much like Beuys's social sculpture, encouraging a deeper connection to the materials, and their potential impact on the environment and society.

RS: In an interview from 2011 with Canadian journalist and broadcaster Eleanor Wachtel, American sculptor Richard Serra (who died on March 26, 2024) says that “Matter imposes its own form.” How do you see the relation between matter and form? Is the surprise of discovering form from the material a big part of the process for you?

MW: The relationship between matter and form plays a foundational role in my work and is integral to my creative process. When Richard Serra spoke about how "matter imposes its own form," I can strongly relate to that sentiment. In my practice, I begin with the rawness and chaos of materials, carefully working to unveil their inherent forms and relationships.

The process of discovering form from the material is indeed a major aspect of my approach. As I chart and organize space and materials, I strive to honor the uniqueness of each object while balancing and measuring their relationships. This journey often leads to unanticipated and delightful moments of insight as the material guides the evolution of the piece.

In series like Out of Each Other (2022), I use formal associations to present sculptural forms that challenge our perception of reality. By focusing on the interaction between technique, materials, and contemporary practices, I invite viewers to explore the intricate interplay between matter and form. Ultimately, the process of uncovering form from the material not only shapes my work but also deepens my connection to the art itself.

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Martha Whittington, Out of Each Other, 2022, Brass, Cherry Wood, Leather, Silk, photo: Michael Rooks

RS: In that same interview, Serra also spoke of his interest in “space as material.” He identifies some of his primary questions as: “How do you know a space and how do you change the perception of that space with the sculptural intervention? Is it possible not to just augment the space or embellish the space or decorate the space but is it possible to make the space one of a sculptural concern not of just an architectural concern as garnish.” Would you say that you share this interest in space as material? Do you see your work in terms similar to what Serra calls “sculptural intervention”?

MW: Yes, I do share Richard Serra's interest in treating space as material and exploring how sculptural interventions can change perceptions of space. My work often engages with spaces that have a history and previous functions, such as abandoned urban landscapes or industrial environments. I imagine the sounds of the defunct machinery, the chatter of the past inhabitants, and the physical residue left behind in these spaces. It’s my intent that the residue left from my alteration of the gallery acts as a record keeper of a past activity, real or imagined.

By transforming these spaces and altering their context, I aim to evoke the past and present through a narrative that speaks to the residue of previous activity. For example, in my work Raddle Cross (2007-2008) at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia (MOCAGA), I engage with the physical and aural history of the abandoned urban landscape, such as the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills and other significant sites. My intention is to leave an impression through my alterations that acts as a record keeper of a past activity, whether real or imagined. This process aligns with Serra's interest in treating space as a sculptural concern beyond mere architectural embellishment.

The name “Raddle Cross” means a group of threads that cross over. It is also a word that sounds like it reads. The museum walls were transformed with 1-inch space cotton twine warp lines from floor to ceiling. This simple gesture transformed the space into a loom as 24 motorized wooden discs of various sizes echoed the same rhythm with different tones as if weaving the space. The viewer becomes, in a sort, an operator in tune with the sound of their machine.

Ultimately, my work aims to evoke the past and present, creating a dialogue that resonates with the history and memory embedded in the spaces I transform.


In Used Air at Whitespace (2022-2023), I delve into the aesthetics of unnoticed technologies and manipulate the gallery space into an environment reminiscent of a working coal mine. This installation requires the visitor to physically engage with the space by crouching and navigating through an entrance like a tunnel. By transforming the gallery and altering the materials within, I aim to provoke thoughts on the lives and labor of those who extract raw materials from the earth.

In both these examples, I use sculptural interventions to transform and engage with space, prompting viewers to reconsider their relationship with the environment and history of the location. Through these interventions, I seek to offer a direct experience of the space and challenge the viewer's perception, much like Serra's approach to sculpture.


Martha Whittington, Worktable, 2024, Formed Leather, Turned Cherry, Spun Brass, Wool Felt

RS: Is challenging the hierarchy of the arts and the hierarchy of materials one of your aims? Do you see your work as questioning the gendered or metaphysical assumptions underpinning these hierarchies?

MW: Considering the hierarchy of the arts and materials is an important part of my creative process. My work often questions traditional assumptions underlying these hierarchies, including those related to gender and metaphysics.

In my projects, such as Red Charted and Line of Sight, I work with a variety of materials, including brass, cherry wood, wool felt, and leather. This allows me to explore their unique properties and relationships, respecting each material's distinctiveness while integrating them into cohesive and harmonious works.

In Red Charted, I use the color red to establish a sense of place and solidity by absorbing light. By organizing space and materials, I create idealized relationships that prompt viewers to think about how different elements interact and are perceived.

Line of Sight employs sculptural works to evoke the memory of function and reveal latent aspects of familiar objects. By reimagining purposes and using varied materials, I encourage viewers to reconsider their assumptions about the relationship between object and purpose.

Throughout my work, I consider the hierarchy of the arts and materials, offering new perspectives and inviting viewers to approach art in a thought-provoking way.

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Martha Whittington, Red: Charted,2022, Installation

RS: It was recently announced that you will be collaborating with composer June Young (Will) Kim of ensemble vim on an “interart” work to premier in Atlanta in 2025. Can you tell us how you began collaborating with composers and what you see as the value of this kind of interaction of artistic forms?

MW: The incorporation of sound into my installations began in 2006, with the rhythmic drone of machines choreographing themselves in my early installation Three Fold at Eyedrum (2006). These initial works, characterized by the thumping sounds and rhythms reminiscent of factory looms, such as in Raddle Cross installed at MOCAGA on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, laid the groundwork for my later collaborations.

Receiving the MOCAGA Working Artist Project grant in 2011 marked a turning point for me. I aimed to move beyond mechanical automation and instead integrate performance and composed music to activate gallery spaces. Recognizing the potential to create more immersive experiences, I sought to incorporate sound and movement as integral components of my installations.

Since then, sound has played a crucial role in my exploration of space and materiality. Through collaboration with creators of sound and movement, I've pushed the boundaries of my practice, blurring the lines between different artistic forms and creating multidimensional experiences for audiences. This interart approach enhances viewer engagement and expands our understanding of the relationship between sound, space, and perception.


Martha Whittington, Maquettes as Guides 2023 in the Studio

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Martha Whittington received her B.F.A. in Sculpture from the Kansas City Art Institute. She received her M.F.A. in Sculpture from Tyler School of Art. She has been the recipient of artist residencies at the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Hambidge Center-Creative Arts in Rabun Gap, Georgia, Go Elsewhere in Greensboro, North Carolina and Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont. She has been awarded grants from the Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia (WAP), Office of Cultural Affairs Atlanta, Idea Capital Atlanta, Dashboard Coop Atlanta, and Austin Green. She has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally with shows at Moot Gallery, Hong Kong, Dans Kamera İstanbul, Turkey, AIRI Berlin, Germany, Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville Florida, Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, and the AMOA- Laguna Gloria, Austin, Texas. Her work is held in private and the public collections of The High Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia, and Savannah College of Art and Design. Whittington is a Professor of Sculpture at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

Martha Whittington


Robert Stalker is an Atlanta-based freelance arts writer.

Robert Stalker

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