Peter Williams, a genre-bending painter who explored the past and present of Black America through surreal narratives, has died at 69. Luis De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, which represents the artist, said that Williams passed away on August 19 following complications from a long illness.
Williams’s prolific practice was guided by his strong moral and political convictions, and addressed issues from mass incarceration to slavery and unequal wealth distribution. Working in an Afrofuturist style, he cast his colorful, often fractured scenes in distant solar systems and injected them with a good dose of wry humor.
“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,” gallery director Luis De Jesus said in a statement.
Throughout his 45-year career, Williams, who was based in Wilmington, Delaware, shifted between abstract and figurative modes, though in an 2020 interview with Forbes he referred to himself as a “figurative narrative painter.” He liked to skewer the traditions of modernism, often portraying its grid as a prison for non-white artists. In some works, figures holding or wearing African masks burst out of Mondrian-like bands of red, yellow, and blue in an explosion of densely packed dots.
Williams’s most recent work focuses on the killing of unarmed Black men and children by police in America. In the large-scale painting The Arrest of George Floyd (2020), he depicted Floyd screaming as disembodied white hands grab him and a blue eye looks on untroubled. In another work dedicated to Floyd, Williams incorporated symbols of corporate greed, suggesting that America’s wealth is built on the suffering and exploitation of Black people.
“My work has always had a political ethos, it comes out of my self-awareness as a black American,” he told Forbes. “This work is a compendium of modernist form and the politics of right now.”
Williams was born in 1952, in Nyack, New York, and earned a B.F.A. from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art. At 17, he was given his first solo show, at the Pat Merenstein Gallery in Nyack, which led to more shows in the region, including one at the Woodstock Music Festival.
A car accident during a college trip to New Mexico led to the loss of one leg; he had lifelong pain. He cited the trauma as a major influence on his practice, in particular the use of a recurring cast of characters as means to tell stories of hardship and triumph.
Williams was known as a passionate mentor and had recently retired from from the fine arts department at the University of Delaware, which he joined following a 17-year tenure at Wayne State University. His many accolades include the Artists’ Legacy Foundation’s 2020 Artist Award and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Williams’ paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Walker Art Center, the Whitney Museum, and the Detroit Institute of Arts, among other institutions. His work appeared in the 2002 Whitney Biennial and the 2017 edition of the Prospect New Orleans triennial, and examples are slated to appear in a solo show at Luis De Jesus next year.