For years Peter Williams’ answering machine informed callers, “You’ve reached Peter Williams, the hardest-working painter in Detroit. I’m in the studio now. Please leave a message.”
He’s called himself an Uncle Tom, a neo-Negro, a black man who just wasn’t black or white enough for the depth of segregation in Detroit and didn’t give a damn.
Or perhaps he did.
Last month, Williams announced he is leaving the city after 17 years for a tenured position in the art department at the University of Delaware.
His departure comes as a major blow to Detroit — the Wayne State University art professor is a rising star in the national painting constellation and one of the best contemporary artists the city has to offer.
His genius is marked by a seamless mixing of the particular and the universal, the personal and the social, the contemporary and the traditional. Since grad school, when he was chasing the coattails of white-boy pantywaist artists like Frank Stella and Jules Olitski, Williams has learned to draw and paint like a true master, a skill especially evident in his watercolors, a medium that doesn’t suffer fools lightly.
In 2002, he became the first Detroit African-American artist selected for the Whitney Biennial in New York City, a coveted position in a show that strives to capture the hottest trends in contemporary American art, commanding attention the world over. (The Destroy All Monsters Collective was also part of that year’s biennial, featuring California-based art stars Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, along with Detroiters Cary Loren and Niagara.)
In 1999, the exhibition Looking Forward, Looking Black paired his work with that of such well-known names as Robert Colescott and Renee Cox. Organized by the Weatherspoon Art Gallery at the University of North Carolina, it traveled nationally, including a stop at the Elaine Jacobs Gallery at Wayne State.
The Whitney bought one of Williams’ paintings, “Jasper’s Last Breath” (2001), a take-off on the work of American modernist master Jasper Johns. It’s a dig at the predominantly white European art tradition, featuring painted yellow rubber duckies and a camouflaged portrait of Mickey Mouse.
Other museums, corporations and private collectors have followed the Whitney’s lead. Compuware recently acquired the autobiographical 2001 painting “Pisse-en-lit” (Bed Wetter) for its new corporate headquarters in downtown Detroit. “Pisse-en-lit” muses on the effects of media images and art history on Williams’ personal and professional self-identity.
Last week, he packed up his house and studio on East Grand Boulevard, four blocks from the Belle Isle bridge, where the one-legged painter has been the victim of several break-ins and robberies, where a shooting once riddled paintings inside his carriage house studio, where his handicap and health problems and age, 52, and the annoyance of Detroit’s screwed-up politics became too much to bear.
“Maybe it would be nice to live in a neighborhood that’s safe,” says Williams. “I’m tired of people [who are] socially, economically and emotionally depressed.”
He sits in the kitchen of his sprawling Arts and Crafts bungalow. He’s only got a few days left in town. The room is empty save for a butcher-block table where he’s having coffee, plus last-packed items: a Rolodex, a framed black-and-white family portrait from the early 1960s, a wooden Black Sambo statuette and a box of Wheaties commemorating the 1991 Minnesota Twins World Series championship. (Williams did his undergraduate work at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the mid-1970s.)
Williams says several factors motivated his decision to leave. First is the University of Delaware’s commitment to building a nationally recognized painting department, something Williams doesn’t see happening at Wayne State. Second is better access to New York City (the acknowledged center of the art world) at a crucial time in his career. Third is a matter of lifestyle.
“As I get older I had to go for comfort because the handicap isn’t going to work here, and I just couldn’t bring myself to move to the suburbs,” he says.
MaryAnn Wilkinson, curator of modern art at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) and one of Williams’ early supporters, says, “An artist who looks beyond the local environment is rare, and Peter brought a different perspective because he’s lived elsewhere. It’s important for this community especially to be exposed to that kind of outside influence. The renewal of narrative painting in the last 10 years has been important to Peter and he’s had a lot to contribute to that conversation, especially to the side of the conversation that often gets left out.”
The DIA keeps the Williams painting it owns, “Portrait of Christopher D. Fisher, Fourth Reich Skinhead,” done in 1995, nearly always on view.
Yet Williams is as controversial as he is appreciated. Since the early 1990s, his works have addressed issues of identity, sexuality, race, stereotypes and the media in ways not always appreciated by the black community. An early series depicts faces of black youths, cropped close in the confrontational manner often found in newspaper crime reports.
Other paintings contain troubling images of black memorabilia — or white America’s curio portrayals of blacks. There are nappy-headed pickaninnies and bandana-wrapped mammies, monkey faces and large lips. Some paintings suggest interracial coupling; vagina imagery is rampant. A provocative series from the late 1990s, Decoys, refers to insidious representations of race in American culture via cartoon characters like Daffy Duck, Heckle and Jeckle and Woody Woodpecker.
It’s not always easy to behold, let alone appreciate or understand such imagery. While giving a talk at the University of Connecticut recently, Williams was confronted by a group of African-American studies grad students who contested the political foundations of his work; their familiarity with it was largely based on a 2001 magazine article (written by Carducci) that analyzed Williams’ work within the minstrel tradition of American humor.
Part of the schism may stem from the fact that Williams was sued by black artist Jocelyn Rainey for $1 billion in a case that stemmed from a copyright dispute over a publication in which Williams had a hand. (Wayne State University and Mercedes-Benz were also defendants.) The litigation involving his former student was settled out of court; all parties are mum on the issue.
But his outsider status within the black community is something Williams has never reconciled. He says he was never invited to exhibit at the galleries of George N’Namdi or Sherry Washington, two prominent African-American gallery operators, because of the rift.
N’Namdi says: “He’s never really talked to me about showing his work that I recall. I don’t think about Peter one way or the other in terms of that suit. I think he’s a good guy, but I think he wants to be controversial as a means of moving ahead.”
Gilda Snowden, professor of painting at the College for Creative Studies, says Williams’ estrangement from the black community is a myth.
“The African-American community welcomed Peter with totally open arms when he came to Detroit,” says Snowden, a respected black painter. “I curated him into shows; I introduced him around. There’s what he says and what others see, and I can’t comment on what he thinks. But I don’t see why it matters to him, because he’s come out on top. Peter is a force unto himself. He doesn’t mind if people don’t like or agree with him.”
As he prepares to leave Detroit, Williams says that race is something that he wants to put behind him. Since Sept. 11, his work has become more sublime, an indicator, he says, “that there are bigger fish to fry.”
“One of the solutions is leaving blackness behind,” he says. “One way to survive is to be dispassionate about things you can’t solve.”
Williams’ new work is the harbinger of a sea change. And like the very best of Detroit culture — Dutch Leonard, John Lee Hooker, Motown, techno, Marshall Mathers and Jack and Meg — Peter Williams must now be shared with the rest of the world.
Ferndale’s Revolution Gallery has represented Williams since 1997. According to Paul Kotula, Revolution’s director, the relationship will continue with a solo exhibition of Williams’ work, most likely in 2005.
Williams will be missed in Detroit not only for his art, but for his respected role as a teacher.
One of Williams’ students is Nick Sousanis, an artist who writes prolifically for TheDetroiter.com, an arts and culture Web-zine that Sousanis co-founded. Sousanis says Williams has had a profound impact on his own artwork and on his writing about the work of others.
“You get real criticism from Peter,” Sousanis says. “Sometimes it’s tough, but it’s also motivating. There’s a deeper engagement on all levels. He was always going to New York and Europe and bringing that back to us. He provided this link between different worlds. His paintings are current, but you can see the whole history of art in them. He’s a really well-recognized artist, so losing somebody like that is a big thing.”
Williams is a blustery, sharp-witted character who will keep you in stitches with endless jokes and barbs. His personality fills a room like a symphony. The man knows how to cut to the chase, and that’s worked both for and against him. He’ll readily admit that he’s pissed off his share of people in town, that he isn’t afraid to get in someone’s face when he’s got something to say.
He compares his controversial images to the “n-word,” which he says he hates even thinking of. Yet, “Let’s put it up there until it doesn’t hurt anymore. We’ve got to confront this, and we have to be the people doing the confronting.”
At least a couple of Detroit artists admit they hold a grudge because Williams has dished on their work. He’s alienated people by being opinionated.
Yet Williams has been through a lot, and he’s not about to hide his feelings.
When the young artist was 21 and set to leave undergraduate college in New Mexico to attend art school in Minneapolis on scholarship, his roommate, after a goodbye party for Williams, took Williams for a drive “to see the sunrise.” Driving his Karmann-Ghia along winding roads, Williams’ “friend” started talking crazy, mumbling, driving faster and faster.
When the speedometer hit 90 mph and Williams saw there was no escape, he strapped on his seatbelt and locked the door. The next thing he knew, the car drove directly off a cliff and was airborne for more than 100 yards before crashing. Williams was thrown out of the windshield and then back in before slamming through the car door. The wreck severed one of his legs, broke the other one in several places and battered his head and torso. He was blind for four months. After a year in the hospital, he left with only one leg, the other severed near the hip.
The driver — Williams learned later he was attempting a murder-suicide — walked away with a broken jaw.
The tragedy changed his worldview.
“When you’re driven off a cliff you’re not going to tell a lot of bullshit, because it’s unproductive,” says Williams.
Last year, Williams learned he had contracted hepatitis C from the blood transfusions he received in the hospital at the time of the accident.
“Painting is how I deal with things,” he says.
The trauma is something that Williams freely talks and jokes about. Like racism, it causes him pain and inspires his artwork.
Williams was born on March 18, 1952, in the marginally integrated working-class (and destined to become elite) New York suburb of Nyack, across the Hudson River from tony Westchester County. Nyack High was 30 percent black.
On the surface, though, his childhood was straight out of “Leave it to Beaver,” and he likes to start lectures by saying that he “grew up as a young middle-class white kid in the suburbs of New York.”
Until his 30s, Williams lived in what he calls “Whiteville U.S.A.” — he was the prized yet novel “black artist.”
His maternal forebears include a white Irish preacher from Kentucky and a celebrated Buffalo soldier who taught at West Point. His mother was so light-skinned, his friends would ask if she was white. His father was a dark-skinned British Honduran who came to New York with nothing at the age of 15 and became a successful real estate agent. Williams’ twin brother was a high school soccer and football phenom who went on to become vice president of an international aircraft-parts manufacturer. Williams’ older brother, David, a high school and college sports star, is now a retired parole officer. A younger brother has battled substance-abuse problems for much of his adult life.
In Nyack, Williams says, “I talked like whites. I listened to the same kind of music. I listened to hippie music. I hung out with the hippies.”
Like other baby boomers, Williams grew up watching representations of a homogenized America on TV, such as “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
He points to the family portrait. “It was like ‘Nigger Knows Best,’” he says. “My father, who always did the right thing, would say, ‘You guys go to school and I’ll have this business,’ which of course was dysfunctional because blacks can’t be white middle-class.”
In the portrait, the Williams family is gathered in front of the fireplace. Dad wears a suit and tie; eldest son a polo shirt; Mom beams in the center, surrounded by her three other sons.
In 1969, the 17-year-old Williams exhibited at the first Woodstock Music Festival art fair, where he won second place in the painting category. And though his travels took him to New Mexico, Minnesota, South Carolina and Baltimore, none of it prepared Williams for what he would face in Detroit.
Heart of Motown
Williams has the love-hate relationship with Detroit that many share: The city is a constant source of inspiration and yet, it wears on you. Williams took the racial politics personally.
“Before Detroit, I always called myself a black artist. Leaving, I call myself an artist,” says Williams.
When he first came to Detroit, Williams was painting in a cool, abstract manner, in keeping with the then-prevailing modern art styles that proliferated in pages of glossy magazines coming out of New York like Art in America and ARTnews. Detroit changed that.
“I hadn’t had this experience of living in the place where the media was covering so much racial disparity, politics, crime and so forth,” Williams says. “The crime was amazing because I would look at the photographs of mostly young kids, and they were very closely cropped confrontational images, and so I tried to compare that with these kids that I was slowly becoming terrified of, and before that I had no reason to be afraid of them until the media elevated that threat.”
He then began making paintings — close-up heads set on abstract backgrounds — inspired by those mug shots.
Those images, though heartfelt, weren’t completely resolved. The heads floated indeterminately in space; the abstract fields underneath competed for visual attention. It seemed that Williams was caught between two working methods.
In 1992, Williams took his first trip abroad to Paris, where he began to study old master paintings at the Louvre. Trips to Spain followed, where the works of Velazquez, El Greco, Goya et al. are found in abundance. The centuries of painting tradition, and the physical environments in which it unfolded, formed the back story of the European art practice that Williams’ art school experience only hinted at. It was a revelation.
In 1995, Williams had the opportunity to put his newfound knowledge to work in the DIA’s Interventions show, for which curators invited Detroit artists to create original works of art in response to the museum’s collection. Artists were permitted to install their work anywhere in the museum, not just the modern galleries.
“We left it pretty open-ended,” says Wilkinson. “People could respond to it to a greater or lesser degree.”
Unfortunately, most of the works in the show were of the lesser variety, especially when seen in the context of the museum’s permanent collection. Williams’ contribution, the “Skinhead,” was an exception.
A close-up portrait of a young white supremacist, the painting portrays its subject with transparent skin, exposing the heart of darkness within. Williams re-appropriates the media technique of the crime photos, presenting instead a fearsome image of racial intolerance.
The painting was installed for the run of Interventions amid family portraits of prosperous 17th-century Dutch burghers. His juxtaposition was a comment on the sordid history of the Dutch slave trade, a legacy not reflected in the paintings that surrounded “Skinhead.”
“It was a very controversial positioning of that painting,” Wilkinson says. “Museums didn’t talk about that kind of thing then, and it really doesn’t get talked about now.”
In spite of definitive and defiant works like “Skinhead,” Williams’ relationship with Detroit’s African-American community was strained, a constant source of pain and conflict for him.
He blames himself to a degree. “I was castrated by the black community,” Williams says. “I didn’t see the power behind it [his own paintings].”
Yet his work is a reflection of his surroundings. His neighborhood is a melange of down-and-out residents and transients, of drug addicts and drunks and happy children and wholesome families and nice old ladies and stores selling booze and diabetes-and-obesity-fueling foods.
“I’m not making this stuff up,” he says of the imagery in his paintings. “I’m just reporting what I see.”
One of the hallmark images of the Detroit influence on Williams’ work is “The Algiers Motel,” painted in 1996, nearly 10 years after Williams moved here. The painting takes its title from a notorious 1967 incident in which three white Detroit cops killed three black men and badly beat a number of other people, including two white women.
In the lower left foreground of the painting is a shiny black Mammy holding a dustpan in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Behind her, a man puffs on a cigarette held in such as way as to suggest the spread lips of a black vagina. To the right is a Black Sambo statuette holding a watermelon that has a wedge cut out of it, resembling another vagina. To the right, a woman, clad in her underwear and seen from behind, pulls back a drape and looks out onto a crowd of indistinct figures.
One reading is to see the painting as re-appropriating racist images of self-hate, turning instruments of repression back on themselves. But the painting is as much about sex as race, particularly when one realizes that the composition is a riff on French romantic artist Eugène Delacroix’s 1834 painting, “Women of Algiers in their Apartment,” a portrayal of a Moroccan harem presented for European eyes. Williams’ rendition is thus also about making the code of European painting more topical.
Williams says all of his art is ultimately autobiographical, a fact that’s obvious in a painting like the 2000 masterwork “Opera Bouffe” (recently sold to a private collector in New York). In it, Williams in drag holds center stage with his mind split open; decades of hateful representations of mediated self-identity spill out. But the return of the repressed of Williams’ id is also the collective unconscious of postmodern America. The artist stands for himself and yet represents us all. It’s what epic art is all about.
Now the epic of Peter Williams heads to Delaware. The direction of his newest paintings might be just the thing to help him adjust to the new environment. For one thing, he’s using a lot more pink.
Yet Detroit will always be a part of his aesthetic, even if he never returns.
Though Williams says he’s looking for new inspiration, he’s a bit frightened, too, about his new phase in life in a small town outside of Wilmington, where a lot of bankers live.
“Detroit was good for me. It kicked my ass on so many levels. It’s so accessible — the street is a great equalizer,” he says.
“Before I came here I had naive liberal ideas of race and integration. This place is the real thing. I found a family here. I learned a whole lot. I think I grew up. In fact, looking around, I think I’m crazy to leave.”Lisa Collins is the arts editor for Metro Times. Vince Carducci writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]