Whitten was born in Bessemer, Alabama, the son of a seamstress, twice widowed. His father, a coal-miner, died while Whitten was a child. Planning a career as an army doctor, Whitten entered pre-medical studies at Tuskegee Institute where he took some pilot training and became inspired by George Washington Carver’s legacy as a scientist, inventor and artist. He also traveled to nearby Montgomery, Alabama to hear Martin Luther King, Jr speak during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and was deeply moved by his vision for a changed America.
Whitten went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to begin studying art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. Angered by the violent resistance to change he experienced he moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1964. Afterwards he remained in New York as a working artist, heavily influenced by the abstract expressionists then dominating the art community.
Whitten’s work was featured in the Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. The Whitney mounted a solo exhibition of his paintings in 1974. He has also had individual shows at numerous private galleries and universities, including a 10-year retrospective in 1983 at the Studio Museum in Harlem and an exhibition of memorial paintings in 2008 at the Atlanta Contemporary Arts Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Throughout his career, Whitten has concerned himself with the techniques and materials of painting and the relationship of artworks to their inspirations. At times he has pursued quickly-applied gestural techniques akin to photography or printmaking. At other times the deliberative and constructive hand is evident. The New York Times labeled him the father of a “new abstraction”.
When the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, Whitten was at his studio on Lispenard Street in Tribeca watching the first plane hit. He spent two years constructing a monumental elegiac and emotion-filled panel, with ashes embedded into it, as a memorial of the day.
Whitten and his wife, Mary reside in Queens, New York. He also owns a vacation home in Crete.