Treasures from the Vault: Peter Williams

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Back in 2003, I organized a solo exhibition of works by Peter Williams at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art. He was featured in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and at the time was teaching just a few hours away in Detroit. Subsequently, we purchased his watercolor, Da Blues Lies (2003), which remains one of my favorite pieces in the FWMoA collection. We have kept in touch through the years, he has moved in different stylistic directions, he has remained steadfast in making challenging critiques of society. In the last few months, we have found ourselves overwhelmed with examples of racist violence against Black Americans on the news and social media. Williams’ most recent paintings are in response to the death of George Floyd.   

Born in 1952, Williams grew up in Nyack, NY. He received his BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design and his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. Williams was Professor of Painting at Wayne State University for 19 years and taught at the University of Delaware for 15 years. He has received awards from the Ford Foundation and the Joan Mitchell Foundation. Williams’ works are in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Art, Howard University, Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Special thanks to Peter Williams for his willingness to discuss his life and art. 

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo (SYR): Can you speak a bit about your childhood and growing up?  When did you begin making art and why?  

Peter Williams (PW): I was a kid in my teen years, and I participated in street festivals and such. My mom first introduced me to making art, and I had a terrific art teacher since grade school. I made art as a way of introducing my world to myself – it was a very cathartic approach for me, no real logic and lots of symbolism.   

SYR: I am curious about artists you admire. I feel connections in your work with Pop art and the 1960s and 1970s artists, like Betye Saar or Robert Colescott. 

PW: Ironically, I was all about the early Modernists, like Kandinsky and Klee, the Expressionists, and folk art. I was aware of African American artists, but never really relied upon that knowledge as African art was a whole other influence. The making was a novel experience I found in these objects, architecture, and decorative pieces.  I was right in the middle of the Pop art era as a teenager, living north of New York City, and went on road trips to see galleries and museums, films, etc.  

SYR: I recall you sharing with me that you were teaching a watercolor class at Wayne State University and thought you would begin a series of watercolors. Da Blues Lies was part of this group. I often think of watercolors as quick, outdoor sketches or studies for paintings, but these are so complex, conceptually and technically. 

PW: I studied the medium as I taught, and after a couple years of this I found my interest was sustained by these elaborate narratives I started in class as demonstrations and took home to finish, as I reworked area’s a story would develop out of these elaborate compositions. Teaching allowed me to develop more representational skills. I worked in the best department for fundamental skills, and looked now to more conventional skills as a way to focus and invent various color scenarios.

SYR: What I enjoy most about your work is that different aspects slowly unfold as you linger and look longer. Whenever I have Da Blues Lies on view, visitors are immediately drawn in, seeking to make sense of all the details that you bring together. Can you tell us about your thoughts behind this piece? 

An abstracted figurative watercolor that includes the GE symbol, an African tribal mask, an angry Black woman, and a man singing into a microphone in an office room with a view of a stone building outside the window.
Peter Williams, American, b. 1951. Da Blues Lies. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 2003. Museum Purchase, 2003.03. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

PW: I don’t remember the entire image and it’s been thirty years, generally my thoughts linger over formal elements like the depth of color and the color itself. Mixing or layering in oil is complicated enough when using cool and warm colors, watercolor has so many variables in the kind of pigments and minerals used. So, it was work learning how to mix and layer. So much of my experimenting was learning the media. My pictorial concerns at that time were my “Negritude”/ “Black Culture” in the early 90s. I used Black Memorabilia and ideas about Black life. I actually got a lot of negative feedback from Black folk , because they didn’t like the symbolic use of characters that may suggest a negative vision of Black people. It was this work that made me more emphatic, and decided that I would go deeper into Black culture.

SYR: I was always very fond of the Ratman persona. You seem to insert autobiographical elements into your works. 

PW: The Ratman persona was indeed autobiographical, since he is both a sign and a signifier, a symbol of me, myself, and I as the “other”. The creation of narratives is also like a dream, in which all of the players are myself. I even present images of myself in Drag (Opera Bouffe). I think it’s a cathartic action on my part, exploring, acting in an action that helps me understand the drama in my life and where it comes from. Since they are autobiographical, they are also a reflection of my family life growing up, troubled and toxic. However, Ratman also represents a real individual, a neighborhood bully in my adult life in my Detroit hood. So, I tend to see elements in these narratives as also a platform on which many things are discussed (history, family, design, invention, critique, etc.) in the frame of the picture.

SYR: The painting  41 Shots, 41 Thoughts (2000) stands out in my memory from our 2003 exhibition. A figure is set against a monochromatic field of reds that is riddled with holes. The title references the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant, who was confronted by the police while reaching for his wallet. Four white officers fired 41 bullets (19 hit Diallo) just outside the 23-year-old’s apartment building in the Bronx. Diallo’s death was in 1999, long before Black Lives Matter protests and social media. Was this your first painting overtly dealing with violence against Black Americans? Were many other artists looking at this at the time?   

PW: I had made Portraits of perpetrators of hate crimes, about innocent Blacks in the wrong neighborhood (Bensonhurst, Howard Beach, Queens) in the city of New York. But 41 shots was my first figurative piece of racial violence. It was very abstract, using strong color, like Venetian red, and 41 (+ or -) circles in the composition. By 1996, I was mostly focused on this body of work: what is Blackness as far as our culture, how does violence and poverty play this role in Black life? It was these kinds of questions that informed Da Blues Lie.

SYR: In the year 2014 alone, we learned of the tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and many others. Not long afterwards, you created a new Black superhero, clothed in a patriotic cape and suit emblazoned with “N-word” across the front. I love that you have taken a word so derogatory and offensive and created something subversive, and perhaps hopeful.  It makes me think of how flying is a metaphor for freedom.  

A Black man, standing atop a dead man with a bat, wears a superhero costume emblazoned with "N-Word" across his chest and an American flag as his cape. Beneath him are two cops and the background is made up of various faces.
Peter Williams, American, b. 1951. Common Thread. Oil on canvas, 2015. Photo courtesy of Peter Williams.

PW: Flying is also a big symbol of my childhood, dreams of flight, myself! I dreamt every, or almost every other, night about flying from childhood on till I left home to go to college. Somehow a flying superhero makes sense to me, then and now. They are also my engagement with my own fears about race. Yes, the hero image is a pop icon and perfect for putting the Nigga in Nigger! I also lost my mind somewhat as I saw these young kids being murdered by the extremists in these police departments, so the camera carrying N-Word emerged in this fictional hero. Besides, I was still carrying around this idea of popular culture, Pop!

SYR: The pig recurs in your paintings as a stand-in for the police or authority. However, it seems like there is more to this besides being irreverent. 

PW: Pigs, the “Other White Meat”, no, I’m being irreverent. My anger knows no depth. As a man of color, the idea that I need to check myself if I’m pulled over by the pigs/cops seems disturbingly true. How dare these public servants show no respect, or even may try to kill me. No I am angry, pure and simple.  

SYR: Your subjects are frank and can be uncomfortable. You force us to confront disturbing examples of oppression and violence, however, you use strategies that entice us to look longer.   

PW: The strategy is the truth which the painting eventually reveals, this prologue allows for an introduction to a strategy, if it’s uncomfortable, it has to do with how one begins this process of recognition. We’ve been instructed in the many ways oppression and violence operates, sometimes a toy gun is an excuse to execute a child, whites refuse to find the humanity in Black lives. We allow ourselves a history of subversive life, we pretend to be docile, we pretend that we don’t fear whites/police. My making whites uncomfortable is an attempt to find new ways to upload this history.

SYR: You have been busy painting during your first months of retirement and the shelter-in-place order. Recently, a Forbes magazine article featured The Death of George Floyd (2020). What are your thoughts on the nation-wide and global protests? 

A triptych showing the arrest, death, and funeral of George Floyd.
Peter Williams, American, b. 1951. The Arrest of George Floyd. The Death of George Floyd. The Funeral of George Floyd. Oil on canvas, 2020. Photos courtesy of Peter Williams.

PW: I think it’s amazing and somewhat disgusting, the Black body being used to create celebrity in the tour of his funeral. The horror of his death should be enough. I tried to recognize the various actions happening in his “Arrest” “Death” and “Funeral” were serious statements about an individual. 

SYR: Institutions are looking to engage with the community in new ways. What would you like to see art museums do? 

PW: Relax their corporate image and move out into the community, bring the art to the people. Select new ways of delivering art to a public naïve about its histories. Museums have become a big contributor to the corruption of the arts, and with COVID-19 institutional life must become about other discoveries, rather than a repository of Western ruins.

SYR: You also have upcoming solo exhibitions this summer. Are you moving in a new direction?  Where do you see your art going in the future? 

PW: I don’t know, it’s a difficult question to answer. I like to think perhaps I could write and use text to have my voice play a deeper role. 

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