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Peter Williams in the studio.

For more than 45 years Williams has chronicled current and historical events, interspersing pictorial narratives with personal anecdotes and fictional characters in order to create vibrant paintings about the diverse experiences of Black Americans. With boldness and humor, he tackles the darkest of subjects including, but not limited to, police brutality, lynching, slavery, mass incarceration, and other realms of racial oppression.  Williams uses cultural criticism to form new creation myths, retelling the history of America from fresh and cosmic perspectives.

Williams’ more recent paintings address a range of subjects including oppressive social structures, white supremacy, police brutality, abuse of power, and political activism. In his on-going series, Black Exodus, Williams tells an Afrofuturist tale of a brown-skinned race that escapes to outer space in search of new planet homes and an end to the cycles of oppression from which they have been subjected. The tale that Williams has envisioned is a journey of consciousness and conscience, a metaphor for the inner and outer travels that all of us must undertake to confront the truth about race and ourselves. 

Peter Williams (1952 - 2021) was born in Suffern, NY and raised in Nyack, NY.  He earned his MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art and his BFA from Minneapolis College of Art and Design. In 2021 he was the recipient of a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship Award, 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize, and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020, he received the Artists’ Legacy Foundation Artist Award.  In 2018 he was inducted into the National Academy of Design. Other awards include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program (2018), Joan Mitchell Awards (2004, 2007), Ford Foundation Fellowships (1985, 1987), and McKnight Foundation Fellowship (1983). He was to retire in September, 2021 from his position as Senior Professor, Fine Arts Department, University of Delaware and taught at Wayne State University for 17 years prior.   

Williams’ many exhibitions include Black Universe (2020) at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, MI; Trinosophes, Detroit, MI; and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles. Men of Steel, Women of Wonder (2019), Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AK; River of Styx (2018), Luis De Jesus Los Angeles; With So Little To Be Sure Of (2018), CUE Art Foundation, New York; Prospect.4: The Lotus In Spite Of The Swamp (2017-18), Prospect Triennial, New Orleans, LA; Dark Humor: Peter Williams (2017), Allcott Gallery, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC; The N-Word: Common and Proper Nouns (2017), Ruffin Gallery, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA; Me, My, Mine: Commanding Subjectivity in Painting (2016), DC Moore Gallery, New York, NY.

Peter Williams’ paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Walker Art Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Nasher Museum of Art, Delaware Art Museum, Davis Museum of Art/Wellesley College, Ft. Wayne Museum of Art, Howard University in Washington DC; Wayne State University, Detroit; as well as numerous private collections including Jorge M. Perez/El Espacio 23, Miami, FL; Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OH; McEvoy Family Collection, San Francisco, CA; Mott-Warsh Collection, Flint, MI; Beth Rudin DeWoody Collection/The Bunker, Palm Beach, FL; Bill and Christy Gautreaux, Kansas City, MO; CCH Pounder, New Orleans, LA; Rev. Al Shands, Louisville, KY; Kelly Williams and Andrew Forsyth, Palm Beach, FL; Burger Collection Hong Kong; among others.  

In these paintings Williams has placed an emphasis on Floyd’s Christian cross, in part to express what his church meant to him personally and his transformation into a symbol of nobility and salvation to be venerated by the community. It’s also noteworthy that Williams engages the idea of the legend and the machinations that are at play in order to create a very intense and deeply moving experience.

Central to this body of work is the George Floyd triptych:  The Arrest of George Floyd, The Death of George Floyd, and The Burial of George Floyd.

THE ARREST OF GEORGE FLOYD (left panel) depicts the arrest of George Floyd over the alleged use of a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. Floyd was arrested outside a convenience store in Minneapolis, Minnesota, taken into custody and wrestled to the ground by four policemen, one of whom kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, killing him. The painting is a combination of religious symbolism and the realism of the arrest. It depicts the laying of hands all over Floyd’s body which is set against a series of brightly colored “stained glass” windows that give way to prison bars. The figure of Floyd is framed by large purple and blue stripes that suggest wings, much like those of an angel, and above his head is a church symbolizing his salvation.  Along the center right and left sides of the painting Williams has inserted prison scenes, cryptic reminders of the omnipresent fear of police entrapment whose deeper meaning he leaves up to the viewer to decipher.

THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD (center panel) was the first painting that Peter Williams created in this triptych and it was an immediate response to the horrific event he saw on video which “hit me like a hammer.” (“His death would be ordinary but for the video.”)  To frame and direct the eye, Williams used two strong stripes of color painted in a light red and a medium yellow to create and connect divisions in the work.  Williams states that the “composition of stripes represent the hegemony of corporate thinking and the symbols of linear thinking that comes from formalism,” which combines “the organic quality of violence/race, justice and what was broadly avoided in modernist art—content.”  Most of the space within the painting is taken up by Floyd’s body, framed within sections in the composition that allowed Williams to create a storyboard of highly symbolic imagery: three glaring blue eyes, a pointed ear piggy-cop, a close-up of Floyd’s upper body pinned down by the cop’s knee, a Christian cross marked “GOD” crowning his head, Floyd’s vital organs (visible as if we’re viewing his autopsy), a row of ten flush-faced white police officer heads in blue caps, and tattoo-like text emblazoned on his body proclaiming his love for his mother and father, and several racial slurs reflecting the divisive state our current situation. 

THE BURIAL OF GEORGE FLOYD (right panel) was influenced by El Greco’s painting “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” a masterpiece of Western Art that Williams calls a “delicious opera of scenes” depicting the burial of Count Don Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo and his ascent to the holy spirit. In Williams’s painting, the scene is simplified and, as in El Greco’s version, the composition is divided into two sections—"above and below”—heaven and earth.  Below, the body of Floyd is seen lying in a coffin, his neck deeply bound by the knee of the cop; above, a silhouette of a figure surrounded by rays of light. Separating the two figures is the text “My Body is Your Fertile Lie.”  The meaning of this inscription is both ambiguous and fact—Floyd lays in his coffin, someday to become fertilizer (“Fertile Lie”). The phrase is a pointed allusion to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and a macabre legend that depicts large numbers of dead ground up for use as fertilizer. He has also shifted his typically bright color palette to one that is significantly darker and more somber.

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