Peter Williams, whose colorful paintings – sometimes humorous, sometimes disturbing, often both – reflected his own story, black history and contemporary issues such as police brutality and mass incarceration, died on August 19 in Wilmington, Delaware. He was 69 years old.
His wife Elishka Vitanovska Mayer said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. Williams first exhibited as a teenager – he had paintings for sale at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 – and was productive for half a century. Its output was huge and constantly changing. Some of his works were abstract, others figurative; some presented an internal monologue in which he tried to define his own identity; some spoke directly and bluntly on current events.
In recent years, he has drawn attention to several series inspired by high-profile killings of blacks by police officers – a group of paintings in heavy shades of blue relating to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014; a triptych about George Floyd, who was killed in Minneapolis in 2020; and more.
Other recent series have been devoted to mass incarceration and Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback and social justice activist. A group of paintings from 2015-2017, also inspired by the black killings, featured a black superhero named N-Word. Dressed in yellow and red and wearing the American flag as a cloak, he arrives at scenes – some gruesome, others almost comical – in which blacks need help.
“I kind of associate it with the Black Exploitation films of the 1970s,” Mr. Williams said Michigan Radio explained the idea behind his superhero in 2016. “Usually the hero of some of these films was a lowlife or a pimp or someone who wasn’t quite that respected, but in the end he got the hang of his community.”
Another series, “Black Exodus” (2019-20), took the view that the planet could no longer be saved thanks to the oppression and environmental destruction caused by white culture – it showed Afro-Futurists converting old ones for space travel Cars flee.
“At this point there was no point in going back to Africa,” he explained in a Zoom artist talk this year, “because maybe there is no planet earth”.
Some whites resented the pictures of Mr. Williams – for example, he sometimes portrayed police officers as pigs. Some blacks also found things in his pictures that they disliked, including his use of minstrels or the Aunt Jemima character in certain works, which they believed perpetuated racial stereotypes.
“Williams has a knack for irritating the viewer, but he does it with style,” wrote Joy Hakanson Colby in The Detroit News in 2006 when Mr. Williams had an exhibition in Ferndale, Michigan. “One thing is certain: it will never be boring.”
Mr. Williams, who lived in Wilmington and was represented by the gallery Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, said his powerful images reflect a personal quest as well as any political statement.
“I’m surprised that people are put off from my job,” he told the Detroit Free Press in 2002. “It’s not just about race, it’s how I find my place in my family and community.”
Occasionally one of his paintings showed a black male figure, sometimes naked, with an artificial leg. It was a portrayal of Mr. Williams himself.
In 1972, when he was a student at the University of New Mexico, he was a passenger in a fast moving car that crashed over a 75-meter cliff near Albuquerque. He lost his right leg above the knee. His wife said he had been in the hospital for seven months.
“His life,” she said via email, “was a lesson in self-discipline and willpower.”
Peter Beresford Williams was born on March 18, 1952 in Suffern, NY, in Rockland County, to Goldburn Beresford Williams and Jacqueline Lucille (Banks) Williams. He grew up in the village of Nyack on the Hudson River, where his father worked as a real estate developer. Peter Williams later admitted that given the region’s relative racial diversity, it took him some time to understand the struggles blacks face elsewhere in the country.
In 1975 he received his bachelor’s degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and received a master’s degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1987. That year he accepted a position as associate professor at Wayne State University in Detroit; this move, he said, helped him deepen his understanding of racial tensions in cities and gave him a close-up view of what he called “a hard life in poverty and its racist infrastructure”.
Mr. Williams moved into the University of Delaware in 2004 and should retire from there this month.
He spent some time in Spain while at Wayne State, and much of his work shows the influence of Goya and other Spanish masters, although he also drew on traditional African imagery and pop culture. The Free Press once described his work as “Salvador Dalí meets Walt Disney”.
The juxtapositions in his work could be shocking.
When Mr. Williams had an exhibit at the New Jersey Visual Arts Center in Summit in 2007, Thomas was Micchelli wrote in The Brooklyn Rail, “Williams’ portrayals of Ronald McDonald, mouseketeer caps and M & M’s, coupled with overtly racist and sometimes obscene imagery, feel like rubble being scraped from the tangled weeds of a brick-strewn void that smells of dead cats.”
Julie L. McGee curated this show and later became a colleague at the University of Delaware.
“Peter Williams was a fearless artist,” she said via email. “His combination of biting humor, social commentary, and beauty let his work do the talking and transcend the moment. “
In addition to his wife, Mr. Williams leaves behind two step-sons, Paul and Daniel Mayer.
Mr. Williams’ work, whimsical or unsettling, required attention, noted Ms. McGee.
“Williams conveyed pain with exuberant colors, patterns, and geometry,” she said. “We don’t dare and can’t look away.”