Born in 1941, Sylvia Palacios Whitman lived in southern Chile before moving to Santiago, where she studied painting and sculpture at the Universidad de Chile. In 1961 Whitman moved to New York and soon took an interest in dance and theater. She quickly became actively engaged in performance art, working with a number of artists, including Robert Whitman (b. 1935), whom she married in 1968. In 1970 Whitman performed with Trisha Brown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and joined Brown's dance company three years later. Between 1974 and 1981 Whitman staged her own performance works at New York venues such as the Kitchen, Artists Space, and Sonnabend Gallery. Her pieces were typically performed by untrained participants and regularly incorporated found and manufactured props, which were frequently ephemeral, often made of paper or string, and discarded after the performance. In South (1979), presented at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Whitman animated an oversize envelope, carried by performers, and a giant whale, which circled its way up the Guggenheim's atrium. Through the inclusion of a Chilean wedding portrait, this piece, like many others, made both clear and oblique references to the artist's South American upbringing.

Occasionally set to compositions by the composer Steve Reich (b. 1936), Whitman's pieces share a simple yet surreal choreographic language. The artist's performances developed alongside and were informed by an active drawing practice consisting of notebook sketches, which detail performance ideas, and stand-alone pieces from the late 1970s and 1980s. These mostly small-scale works include a series of figurative pieces that explore the spaces and faces of her childhood in Chile as well as highly worked drawings with irregular geometric patterns and occasional figurative and collaged elements. Whitman's abstracted drawings allude to political concerns, yet any straightforward interpretation is obscured by her repeated application of ballpoint pen ink. She gave up her artistic practice in the 1980s but has recently garnered renewed attention. In 2013–14 her early performance work—including props, documentation, and restaged performances—was showcased in the exhibition Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980 (2013) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.