From the figural abstraction Whitten developed in the 1960s, thematically inspired by the Civil Rights protests and formally influenced by Abstract Expressionism, the artist turned to formal experimentation in the early 1970s. During this time he began investigating a new method that would replace the habitual gestural movement of his wrist. The 1970s became a pivotal moment for Whitten, marking the beginning of his life-long desire to expand the limits of painting through aesthetic and technical experimentation. His work in this decade resonates more closely with photography: the paint and canvas were “processed” as he swiftly ran squeegees, rakes, and Afro combs over layers of paint. In 1970, he constructed a twelve-foot metal tool he named the “developer” that raked across the surface of the canvas, which would lie on the floor or a drawing board. Underneath the canvas, he placed objects such as wire, sheet metal, and pebbles, which interrupted the otherwise smooth movement of the tools, causing abrupt spasms of paint or reliefs of the objects’ shapes. This process, through Whitten "captured" the developer's action enacted on the canvas and distilled it as a single image, was an exploration of the effect of speed on paint and canvas, and yields palpable surface texture, line, and void. As noted by Professor Kellie Jones in EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (2011), when Whitten laid the canvas directly on the floor, it was not an overt homage to Jackson Pollock, but rather a reference to the work of the tile-setters he observed when he worked in construction during his first years in New York.
For Whitten, abstraction is never far removed from the social and political. The process behind his 1970s paintings enabled him to work though his deep reactions to the turmoil surrounding the Civil Rights Movement. Additionally, the linear quality of the work allowed him to meditate on the geographical demarcation of the Western world and diasporic movement, themes to which he returns later in his career. He was also able to create a field of paint, related to what he described as the “sheets of sound” produced by jazz musicians.