Artist Peter Williams:
On Race, History and Painting

Celebrated painter and Wayne State University professor Peter William speaks with a self-confidence balanced by a strong sense of humility, evidenced in his trademark line: "I don't want people to think I am just a legend in my own mind. But for the most part that's the way I feel most of the time." When he says with a hearty laugh and a warm smile "I barely even have a leg to stand on" the painter acknowledges and comes to terms with the subject of the leg he lost in an accident as a young man.

Williams' works weave together cultural history, images of racial stereotypes, and the tradition of painting to create complex, often autobiographical paintings. His work is in the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, where his work was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial exhibition. Williams sat down with to discuss the Whitney exhibit, his art and the role Detroit has played in his work.

sThe Whitney Biennial is a very selective show surveying what's going on in contemporary art in America. This year it was distinctive because there were so few traditional works of art and I was one of five painters out of approximately 120 artists in the show. (Being included) opened up a lot of avenues for me; it allowed my work to gain a greater degree of attention. Writers locally and nationally started writing about my work and started exploring ideas and themes that they found in the work, not just the ones that I presented to them. That's exciting always, because you learn something about yourself and about the depth of your ideas in your work. It seems that the work is more accessible than I realized and I feel empowered by that to explore a greater variety of themes.

The most enjoyable part, perhaps, was that it allowed me to connect with Detroit, or for Detroit to connect with me. People really celebrated the fact that a Detroiter was in that show and it represented to the community, I think, a comeuppance or an arrival that revealed the strength of Detroit. I greatly enjoyed being included in that - feeling a part of that for the first time. I was really feted and celebrated in the city.

Williams grew up in Nyack, in upstate New York, and after spending time in New Mexico, moved to Minnesota for 12 years where he received his BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He went on to eawrn his MFA from the Maryland Institute of Arts in Baltimore, before arriving in Detroit in 1987.

I think my work has evolved over the last 35 years. I started showing as a young artist in my teens. I had a gallery and a dealer and a lot of "professional quality opportunities." But I would say that's "professional" at the lower end of the totem - local shows in a small town, a village, and some in New York City.

What brought me to Detroit really had to do with arriving in my early 30s and realizing that living so long in a white world I was out of tune with all the problems and questions and concerns about my future and how race was affecting it. … I was conflicted by the kind of importance or priority that I felt race was becoming at that point.

Graduate school in Baltimore allowed me to at least get my introduction to that to see whether or not it was important. It turned out it was. For the first time in my life I had a larger body of black, creative people around me to network with. It was a very conflicting dialogue because I had been so long in this white world that it hadn't occurred to me that one could think any other way - other than integration and so forth. People were virulently anti-white, anti-integration in the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. corridor. So when I had the opportunity to come to Detroit (and teach) I leapt at it. Because I could see that there was something I really needed to go more deeply into.

I was terrified by the idea of coming to Detroit, quite frankly. But getting here was really an opportunity: It allowed me to make artwork that had a kind of vocal, political, theme or ideology to it, which I never felt I had permission to do in Minneapolis or those other environments. And it also allowed me a time frame to grow.

By the early 90s, I was really just beginning to explore themes of cultural identity in my work and introducing ideas about black stereotypes. At the time, there was a confluence of racial attacks on blacks on the East Coast that were precipitated, usually, by a young black male going into the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. … so I was really thinking of how images of blacks were projected upon people of color through the media.

I started borrowing images of black people from the newspaper that were listed in Michigan's most wanted. They used to have these images of young black kids, with their head turned, confronting the camera, in a very stark sense, with no background. Whereas young white kids, that were the same age, same kind of thing, they would give more of a background and the image was of a more passive kind. … So I used them (both) as sources for a series of portraits. Eventually it evolved into a series of paintings called "Perpetrators of Hate Crimes." ["Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead" is in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.]

Another incident that informed his work occurred when Williams observed a group of young black girls in the DIA's Dutch galleries.

As they went from painting to painting admiring the portraits of the bejeweled people - I thought how ironic that these people who we know nothing about, in these portraits, might very well have been the same people who were the owners of slave ships that brought blacks to America and therein to Detroit. And so that became a kind of notion to me: that we have all this information but we don't integrate the meaning of it in any kind of realistic fashion.

One day at the bookstore I discovered a catalogue on Black Memorabilia. I was attracted and repulsed, because the images were far more disturbing and far more widespread than I had ever imagined. There were tsatskes of blacks going to the potty, or games in which you threw beanbags at a big façade of a black face into the mouth to score points. Or there were postcards advertising a free lunch in Florida and there would be an image of a black man in the mouth of an alligator. So there are these preposterous and weird things, and I thought - Oh my god, that's the history of this country.

I decided to add (those images) into my painting. The first time I showed these paintings, in 1995, it was very disturbing to a lot of blacks in the community. I acquired a reputation, I think, as a bit of a provocateur or Uncle Tom, what have you. Partly because I taught at what was a predominantly white university in the arts - I'm still only the second black person to be hired in fifteen years of being there. So I am conscious of the fact that I am in a unique position - that my art really needs to address some of those social concerns about how we perceive our status, and the complexity of the lives of black people.

These issues of race, dysfunctionality and conflict are things that seem deeply rooted in my psyche, in my soul and indeed in my imagery. In my own interpersonal relationships I have a basic belief in integration, and believe very strongly that we won't work it out until we can all get it together. But in my art, those kinds of ideas conflated with what was becoming a great interest and excitement about working with the western canon of pictorial images that dealt with composition and form and history.

I also began to explore more narrative properties (not just portraits) as a way to handle some of the difficulty of using these images out of context. So I would place these black memorabilia forms in a narrative context and sometimes against the backdrop of a fairly famous painting, appropriating a bit of its compositional structure.

Williams identifies his work "The Algiers Hotel" as a piece which conflates Delacroix's painting of a brothel, "The Women of the Algiers in their Room" with the Algiers Motel in Detroit, where the 1967 riots began.



It was one of the first paintings in which I really put all of the parts together and made my own painting, premised on both my compositional thinking, my historical thinking, the appropriation of art, local history, etc. It was quite satisfying.

I remember a philosopher friend in undergraduate school saying, "Any true search means that you move beyond your original premise." And true to the case, I started to explore compositional structures not always with race or class in mind. and that continues to this day. I am exploring not just the complexity of African-Americans and their lives but also the complexity of my autobiography, my own history as a human being.

Williams' most recent work, including his upcoming exhibit at Revolution, has been greatly affected by the events of 9/11.

I felt it truly changed forever how we view ourselves in this country. So, thematically some of the formal structures in the paintings again appropriate from other artists, while dealing with the structure of that event, and the outcome.

What I think guides a lot of my work - is that it's based on some factual event, some experience that I have had - as opposed to making up a folktale. … And Detroit is becoming more of a real place for me as I decide to commit to it after fifteen years. Until recently I had always thought of it as a stop on the way to living. And then I realized … that I am living. Why stop and start over someplace else? Life is short.

I don't love Detroit, I perhaps never will. I feel like I am living in other people's memories most of the time and that's never much fun. And maybe what I have got to create are my own memories, maybe I already have. The art community is strong, vibrant, intellectually grounded - at least in the parts that I deal with. The neighborhood that I reside in is sufficiently complex to fuel my imagination on a daily basis. The characters that I see on the streets, the local people at the neighborhood store, all of them could be in a fifteenth century painting.… Lately I have been pretending at the back of my mind, that I am really (painter Pieter) Bruegel and Detroit is a medieval city in a third world country, and I am just documenting the events that occur through the work itself.

So I am enjoying that part. But some days I wish I were on the beach in LA, what can I tell you? [Laughs]

Williams' legend continues to grow in people's minds with a show at the Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Indiana, through June 29 , as well as an upcoming exhibition at Ferndale's Revolution Gallery, opening May 3rd.