ARTIST AND EDUCATOR Peter Williams (1952-2021) has died. He was 69. A fantastic painter and storyteller, his use of bold and intense color was equally matched by his candid and thoughtful insights about his own experiences and the realities of the wider world around him, which he expressed in his work. After a long illness, Williams died Aug. 19 at his home in Wilmington, Del.
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, the artist’s gallery, shared the news in a statement today. “We are saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend, artist Peter Williams. We will miss his humor and stimulating conversations about his work, society, and family,” said Principal and Director Luis De Jesus. “He was a painter 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 past 50 years, Williams has employed humor, art history, allegorical tales, blunt images, and a cast of fictional characters to explore the complexity of Black life, always with currency. His vast body of work has addressed racial oppression and violence, migration and displacement, mass incarceration and police brutality, the environment, and otherworldly realms inspired by Afro-futurism. He has also dedicated series to “Black Women of the Black Power Revolution” and Colin Kaepernick.
Expressing his “shock” at seeing the video of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer pressing his knee into his neck, Williams created “The George Floyd Triptych” (2020), depicting the arrest, death, and burial of Floyd in three panels. In earlier series (Ferguson and N-Word), Williams responded to the police murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
Writing about Williams for Hyperallergic last year, critic John Yau said: “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.”
Yau added: “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.”
Despite the pandemic, Williams showcased his work in several exhibitions that opened in 2020 before closures and after restrictions began to ease. “Peter Williams: Incarceration” was presented at the Cressman Center for Visual Arts at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Later in the year, “Peter Williams: Black Universe” was on view at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Works from the artist’s Black Universe series were also shown concurrently at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and Trinosophes, an alternative space in Detroit. Earlier this year in March, “Peter Williams: Black Exodus” opened at Freight + Volume in New York City.
Williams won the Guggenheim’s inaugural Fellowship in Fine Arts in April, an honor underwritten by Robert De Niro in honor of his father, artist Robert De Niro Sr. Williams also received the 2020 Artist’s Legacy Foundation Award, and was honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2021) and National Academy of Design (2018).
This more recent recognition followed a long list of exhibitions and awards throughout his career, including fellowships from the Ford Foundation and Joan Mitchell Foundation and participation in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the Prospect.4 New Orleans Biennial in 2017.
WILLIAMS WAS BORN in Nyack, N.Y. After studying at the Art Students League in New York City (1969-70), he attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque (1970-72). During this time, he was involved in a serious car accident, as a passenger, which led to the loss of his leg and many months in the hospital. When he returned to school, he enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minnesota, where he received his BFA in 1975, and went on to earn an MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore (1987).
In 1987, Williams began teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., where he was an associate professor of art and art history for 17 years. Williams had his first solo exhibitions in Detroit and the arts and culture of the city were a fundamental part of his life and the development of his practice. Subsequently, he moved to the Northeast where he was a professor of fine arts at the University of Delaware in Newark, from 2004, until his retirement in 2020.
According to his gallery, Williams “lived each day to paint” and did so until his final hours.