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Peter Williams, The Arrest of George Floyd

Peter Williams
The Arrest of George Floyd, 2020
Oil on canvas
48 x 60 in.

Peter Williams, a pioneering painter who transcended genres and created vibrant, fervent boldly-colored figurative and abstract paintings that burst with emotion and socio-political passion, has died. 

Every bold brushstroke underscored Williams’ self-described “liberal, progressive African-American point of view.” 

Fellow artists and his former and current students in the Department of Art and Design at the University of Delaware expressed an outpouring of grief and gratitude for the prolific painter who invested as much into mentoring fellow artists as he did into composing every large-scale canvas.

“Peter Williams is one of the forefathers of Afro-surrealism visual art, and his work should and always be celebrated for its beauty, message, and creativity,” said Williams’ friend and fellow Afro-surrealist artist Alim Smith.

Photographic artist Lisa Nebenzahl said Williams was her first friend when she moved to Minneapolis in 1976.

“I’m heartbroken to hear of Peter’s death. Peter was so incredibly talented and prodigious then and very much so to the end of his amazing life,” Nebenzahl said. “I will miss the support he's shown me recently as I re-entered my art practice, describing us in a note last month as the ‘messengers’.”

Williams’ most recent work featured an explosive and visceral depiction of racial strife, black power, and police brutality. The white gaze magnified by brazen images of white police officers as pigs, blue eyes leering, and white hands grabbing, Williams’ detailed work incorporates symbols of unfair wealth distribution, greed, and religion, underpinning the rampant racism that permeates this nation’s systems of power and authority.

“My work has always had a political ethos, it comes out of my self-awareness as a black American. This work is a compendium of modernist form and the politics of right now. I had been working, shifting the work toward a more abstract base. I had always been a figurative narrative painter,” Williams told me in an interview last June. “The composition of stripes represent the hegemony of corporate thinking and the symbols of linear thinking that comes from formalism. I am trying to combine the organic quality of violence/race, justice and what was broadly avoided in modernist art, content.”

Despite the intensity and moral gravity of his work, Williams approached life and teaching with levity and dark humor that accompanied a smile as wide as his world view. 

“His humor, while not for everyone, was perfect for me: good sarcasm, honest and often self-effacing, especially as he faced so many health issues in the last few years,” said Nebenzahl.

Williams, who earned a B.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art, was an artist for more than four decades, creating a multitude of stunning new works even as his health deteriorated. His tireless work ethic and pervasive spirit could never be vanquished. Williams spoke with eloquence and conviction, and sought to impart his skill, knowledge, and enthusiasm onto future generations of artists.

Williams credited his high school art teacher Joe McDowell as a primary influence, and always recognized the support of his mother and family. 

Williams, who cross-referenced subjects and styles, described his process as “experimental with regard to content and traditional form.” His complex paintings explored color, structure, and form as genuinely as his later works scrutinized social and racial injustice amid a pervasive collapse of humanity. 

“My career has been full of a variety of directions that proved to be of interest. The most cohesive part of this journey has been work about the life of African-American  as subject,” Williams wrote. “I made images of Black cowboys while living in New Mexico. Now I find the subject of my Negrotude reasserting itself and is still a powerful device to try to express and expose to an audience.”

Williams never let pain and struggle compromise his ability to create. An amputee after surviving a car accident in college, Williams said “this experience has always influenced my interest in the figure and the use of narrative space in my story telling. There is an immediacy I am constantly thinking about, through the use of color.”

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