This past weekend, we were saddened to hear of the passing of the great American painter, Peter Williams. On this occasion, his gallery, Luis de Jesus, wrote a wonderful essay on his legacy this past week, that we wanted to share with our readers today. “We are saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend, Peter Williams,” said  Luis De Jesus, Principal and Director of Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. “We will miss his humor and stimulating conversations about his work, society, and family. He was an artist who painted for himself and was not afraid to poignantly portray the truths of contemporary society. His passing is a huge loss for us and his many friends and colleagues in the art world.”

Over the course of the past 50 years, Peter Williams’ work has responded to issues stemming from colonialism, evoking self-determination as an imperative to confront historical violence, systemic racism and generational trauma. Williams chronicled current and historical events, interspersing pictorial narratives with personal anecdotes and fictional characters in order to create colorful paintings about the diverse experiences of Black Americans. With boldness and humor, he tackled the darkest of subjects including, but not limited to, war, police brutality, lynching, slavery, mass incarceration, and other realms of racial oppression. Williams used cultural criticism to form new creation myths, retelling the history of America from fresh and cosmic perspectives.

Williams’ early paintings were often visually structured according to composition techniques that he gleaned from studying paintings by Bosch, Bruegel, Velasquez and Goya. The act of witnessing war and corruption was a central theme that he drew from in referencing the work of European Renaissance artists; however, as he was always quick to note, “bearing witness must also be accompanied by direct action to bring about sustainable social change.” 

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Since the 1970s, Black consciousness, Negritude ideologies and other forms of cultural critique have been central to his painting discipline. Satirical visual narratives intersect with discordant use of color and form to reveal the complexities of African American life. Williams’s student years coincided with racial justice movements within the Black Radical tradition and he carried those influences forward into recent work, such as Black Women and the Black Power Revolution of the 1960’s. 

In 1970, he started undergraduate work in the Department of Art at the University of New Mexico, where Black History became a focal point in his paintings. This concentration evolved into the Black Cowboy, a series of paintings that reference the Buffalo Soldiers, who served as cavalry on the Western frontier following the American Civil War. During this time, Williams was involved in a car accident that left him hospitalized for 8 months with an amputated leg. He had to reconcile tensions between freedom of exploration and physical restriction in subsequent years, as he pursued his studies to earn a B.F.A. from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Dislocation, mobility and access became common themes during his years as a student. 

Fellowship Awards from the McKnight Foundation in 1983 and from the Ford Foundation in 1985-1987, offered pivotal encouragement and financial support. During this time, he began his M.F.A. studies (1985-1987) at Maryland Institute College of Art.  Figuration and abstraction began to merge in his painting, with an emphasis on spatial narratives in relation to oppression and confinement.  Shortly after completing his M.F.A. he relocated to Michigan, where he began his teaching career in 1987 at Wayne State University, as an associate professor of Art and Art History in the College of Fine Arts, Performing and Communication Arts, and taught there until 2004, the same year he received the Distinguished Professor Award.

He was also given an Excellence in Teaching Award in 1997 for a collaborative project that engaged a group of Wayne State University students in the process of creating an 11,000-square-foot, three-dimensional painting for the Mercedes-Benz display in the Detroit and Barcelona auto shows. Williams traveled to Europe for this project and the opportunity to experience Goya’s work in person had a great impact on him. The horrors Goya depicted in “Disasters of War” and other works, gave him permission to take his work where it needed to go. Travel also exposed him to a range of music from the African Diaspora, which fused with inspiration gathered from the Detroit music scene. Williams’ painting compositions began to take on a rhythmical structure as a direct influence from experiences abroad.

While teaching and maintaining an active painting practice in Michigan, Williams held his first solo exhibitions in museums, universities and contemporary art galleries. Local public collections began to acquire his work, including Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of the Arts, Henry Ford Community College and Wayne State University. The local community continued to recognize his work and in 1989 he was awarded the Michigan Council for the Arts Artist Grant and in 1991 the Detroit Council for the Arts Urban Margins Grant. 

As the world transitioned to the 21st Century, Williams was invited to participate in Looking Forward, Looking Black (1999-2002), a traveling group exhibition curated by Jo Anna Isaak to reexamine the ways African Americans have been portrayed in art and popular culture. Shortly afterwards, Williams began receiving more national and international recognition. In 2001 he exhibited in the group show, African Influences in the Visual Arts of the Americas, at Museo Afro-Brasilero in Bahia de Salvador, Brazil. In 2002 he had the honor of being included in the Whitney Biennial, which resulted in an acquisition for the museum’s permanent collection. The Biennial was also pivotal in bringing his work to the attention of art critics. John Yau has reviewed several of Williams’ exhibitions since and, most recently, in an article for Hyperallergic he observed: 

“As a Black man and a painter who feels entrapped in modernism’s legacy of the grid, Williams recognizes that imprisonment of one kind or another has run throughout White America’s dealing with Black people since the beginning of its history… I don’t think Williams is trying to convey a particular point of view so much as open a space where the viewer might reflect upon fraught, at times violent encounters in which no resolution is in sight.”

FEAT Peter Williams in his studio 2018

After 17 years of immersing himself in the arts and culture of Detroit, Williams relocated to Wilmington in 2004 to accept a teaching position as Senior Professor in the Fine Arts Department at University of Delaware, where he taught until his retirement in 2020. That same year he received The Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors award. During this period his work was focused on themes of destruction and repair amidst collective tragedy. Many of his paintings were in response to the world stage after the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing Iraq War. In 2007 he was a Joan Mitchell Foundation Artist in Residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute and was awarded the Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship. The visibility he was gaining on the East Coast culminated in two solo exhibitions: Artistic Repair at The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey, Summit, NJ and Baghdad and Other Unfinished Business, Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts, Wilmington, DE.

Rattled by the murder of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Williams began a prolific body of work titled the N-Word series in 2014. This period marked a turning point in his work with the introduction of emotional realism and a Super Hero protagonist, a character that ventures to deconstruct the status quo schema in which race and patriotism are often perceived. These works employ carnivalesque scenes and shockingly bright colors to distract from the weight of the subject matter at first glance; however, once the viewer draws closer, the narrative of pervasive police brutality unfolds in graphic detail and cynical dark humor. In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in response to escalating police violence, additional bodies of work began to emerge, such as The Ferguson Paintings (2014); How to Make a Brutalist Painting (2017) and the Kaepernick Paintings (2017).

In 2018 Williams was inducted into the National Academy of Design and he participated in the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, CA. During this time much of his work was devoted to the subject of mass incarceration. Critique of the prison industrial complex was central to his solo exhibition, With So Little To Be Sure Of (2018), curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah for the CUE Art Foundation in New York. He evolved this series through 2019 to address race as an apparatus that functions across institutions in addition to the penal system. A solo exhibition of this more comprehensive body of work, Peter Williams: Incarceration at Cressman Center for Visual Arts, Hite Art Institute, University of Louisville, Kentucky opened on February 7, 2020, foreshadowing the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, which took place in the following weeks. 

Space travel and the imaginings of a post-racial frontier are central to his more current work. In 2019 he began the Black Exodus paintings, which evolved into the Black Universe body of work and were presented concurrently in his 2020 solo exhibitions “Peter Williams: Black Universe” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Narration and Transition, another solo exhibition featuring abstract works, was presented at the non-profit artists space Trinosophes in Detroit.  In September of 2020 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was also honored to receive the Artists’ Legacy Foundation Artist Award, in recognition of his accomplishments in painting. These honors were followed by the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2021.  

Williams was devoted to his craft and lived each day to paint. He painted until his last hours and most recently was exploring ways of integrating sculpture and installation into his painting practice. He was interested in merging the visual imagery with 3D objects to represent mechanisms for passage, capable of transporting the viewer in a flight of the imagination. “I draw from the lived experience of being wheelchair bound, to envision mobile worlds, designed to transgress barriers and allow access, while referencing histories of migration, displacement, racial oppression and environmental degradation.”

Peter Williams is survived by his wife, Elishka Vitanovska Mayer, and his stepsons Paul and Daniel Mayer.