Skip to content

Walter Williams

A Selection

Head-Image

“All of my life I have been painting one picture, it is the picture that shows my soul and inner thoughts. When I am working, I feel a child’s naivete.”

Walter Williams, 1973

Walter Williams, 1968.  Courtesy The David C. Driskell Archives.

Walter Williams, 1968.  Courtesy The David C. Driskell Archives.

Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Walter Williams (d.1998) spent his formative years mingling with artists and musicians in Harlem. After serving in France during WWII, he began his artistic career in 1951 at the age of 30, enrolling in the Brooklyn Museum School of Art under the GI Bill. He found critical success early on, being selected to participate in a group show at the Whitney in 1953, and receiving his first solo exhibition at the Roko gallery in 1954. Williams’ work always held a strong element of social commentary and protest, his earlier works focusing on scenes of Black life in the streets and jazz clubs of Brooklyn and Harlem around which he grew up. Struck by the Danish landscape upon his first visit in 1956 (after completing his studies, he received a Whitney Fellowship to travel), he shifted away from depictions of everyday life, primarily focusing on country and childhood scenes for the duration of his career. Williams completed most of the works in this virtual viewing room after moving permanently to Denmark in 1969—a move largely motivated by his wish to be distanced from the racial prejudice and violence of the states. Although far from his birth country, Williams’ work was never disengaged from the realities of inequality in America, and his work maintained a reverence towards the struggle for racial justice throughout the rest of his career. Following a devastating studio fire in 1980, which destroyed many of his works, he abruptly stopped painting in 1983 at the age of 63.

EC

“Throughout a productive life in which he created handsome color woodcuts, paintings and drawings that almost always reference people and a romantic world, Walter seldom veered away from his single vision focused on bringing beauty to the world even when depicting the harsh realities of everyday life.”

David C. Driskell, July 2004

Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 ½ inches

Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 ½ inches

In the articulate and wild visual language of Walter Williams, scenes of childhood whimsy are often laid out in delicate combinations of bold and soft line and color, expressing the fervent, dreamy splendor of meadows, sunflowers, and soaring birds and butterflies. In his landscapes, a vibrant palette and careful layering of woodcuts and collage alongside detailed brushwork draw the viewer into the unreal brightness of an eternal Scandinavian summer’s day. But these perfect worlds, as lauded artist and critic David C. Driskell wrote of his friend in 2004, are often as much a celebration of the brilliance of nature and the joys of life, as they are a reference to the deep suffering and inequity of humanity. Sometimes these references are quite direct, as in the grey/black coloration and unambiguous allegorical imagery of Caged Bird (1966), and the even darker, stormy palette of Boy with Roots (1970). Indeed, in some of his works (not included here), Williams portrays a completely grim, even hopeless view of life.

EC

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 ¾ inches, diameter

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 ¾ inches, diameter

Summer Day, 1976, color woodcut, 14 1/8 inches, diameter

Summer Day, 1976, color woodcut, 14 1/8 inches, diameter

More commonly in Williams’ work, references to pain are held within joyful scenes, such as in Summer Day (1976), where silhouetted figures of children in the foreground look hopefully towards the sun, while in the background, alongside an abandoned plow, the dark silhouette of a person looks contemplatively—or perhaps mournfully—down at the ground, as if recognizing the dark history within his relationship to the earth he works. In Sunflowers #2 (1966) a child victoriously holds a rooster, while a small wooden shack in the background signals that the child is living in poverty. Sunflowers in the foreground offer both hope and beauty, while their missing petals suggest the incompleteness of the story—the work still to be done.

EC

Sunflowers #2, 1966, color woodcut, 13 ½ x 20 inches

Sunflowers #2, 1966, color woodcut, 13 ½ x 20 inches

“The birds in flight and the butterflies in his compositions symbolized the freedom that African American’s desired to have to move about freely undisturbed. The sunflower symbolized hope of a brighter day ahead as did the beautiful pink and orange sky so often seen in many of the artist’s works.”

David C. Driskell, July 2004

Within many of these images is a sustained acknowledgement of the struggle of Black Americans, as the legacy of slavery is reflected in both the rural Black poverty of the South, and in the ongoing anti-Black violence and institutionalized racism that is threaded through the foundations of American society. In the idealism of his landscapes Williams lays out a hopeful view for the future, a vision of a perfect world that is built for everyone. But for Williams, his perfect world need not—and indeed cannot—exist without acknowledgement of the realities of this inequity.

EC

Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 ½ x 17 ½ inches

Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 ½ x 17 ½ inches

“Another favorite theme of Walter’s was the Black Madonna. Relying heavily on the theme of the black Madonnas seen in the churches of medieval Europe, Walter brought to this ancient theme a newness of form that communicated his personal love and passion for the human figure and for the tender love of mothers.”

David C. Driskell, July 2004

Black Madonna, 1982, color woodcut, 23 ½ x 19 inches

Black Madonna, 1982, color woodcut, 23 ½ x 19 inches

“Williams’s wife feels that his use of a Black Madonna reveals his rebellious side. She pointed out that even before he made any artistic explorations of the theme, he frequently questioned the assumption that Jesus was white, particularly given the birthplace of the Son of God. He felt that making Jesus white was not only factually incorrect but it also served to reinforce a racist system that held whites to be inherently superior to blacks.”

Eric Hanks

“Walter’s death in 1998 all but brought to an end an era in American art when patronage, constant discovery and a personal passion for the expatriate spirit went hand in hand with an inquiry into a larger and more diverse world. Indeed, Walter’s art showed a larger and more diverse world than what we had known before. It was a world of joy, sorry and pain, all encompassed in a painterly format.”

David C. Driskell, July 2004

Walter Williams and Jacob Lawrence. Opening of Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint L'Overture series exhibit, Fisk University, 1968. The David C. Driskell Archives.

Walter Williams and Jacob Lawrence. Opening of Jacob Lawrence's Toussaint L'Overture series exhibit, Fisk University, 1968. The David C. Driskell Archives.

Checklist of Available Works

Thumb-Show

Thumb-Show Thumbnails
Summer Night #2, 1970, mixed media on board, 18 x 22 inches

Summer Night #2, 1970, mixed media on board, 18 x 22 inches

Available

Inquire
Sun, 1970, oil on board, 9 1/2 inches in diameter

Sun, 1970, oil on board, 9 1/2 inches in diameter

Available

Inquire
Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 1/2 inches

Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 1/2 inches

Available

Inquire
Caged Bird, 1966, woodcut, 18 x 24 inches

Caged Bird, 1966, woodcut, 18 x 24 inches
 

Sold

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 3/4 inches in diameter

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 3/4 inches in diameter

Available

Inquire
Summer Day, 1976, woodcut, 14 1/8 inches in diameter

Summer Day, 1976, woodcut, 14 1/8 inches in diameter

Available

Inquire
Sunflowers #2, 1966, woodcut, 13 1/2 x 20 inches

Sunflowers #2, 1966, woodcut, 13 1/2 x 20 inches

Available

Inquire
Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches

Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches

Available

Inquire
Black Madonna, 1982, woodcut, 23 1/2 x 19 inches

Black Madonna, 1982, woodcut, 23 1/2 x 19 inches

Available

Inquire
Summer Night #2, 1970, mixed media on board, 18 x 22 inches

Summer Night #2, 1970, mixed media on board, 18 x 22 inches

Available

Sun, 1970, oil on board, 9 1/2 inches in diameter

Sun, 1970, oil on board, 9 1/2 inches in diameter

Available

Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 1/2 inches

Boy with Roots, 1970, mixed media on board, 7 x 8 1/2 inches

Available

Caged Bird, 1966, woodcut, 18 x 24 inches

Caged Bird, 1966, woodcut, 18 x 24 inches
 

Sold

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 3/4 inches in diameter

Landscape East, 1970, mixed media collage on board, 16 3/4 inches in diameter

Available

Summer Day, 1976, woodcut, 14 1/8 inches in diameter

Summer Day, 1976, woodcut, 14 1/8 inches in diameter

Available

Sunflowers #2, 1966, woodcut, 13 1/2 x 20 inches

Sunflowers #2, 1966, woodcut, 13 1/2 x 20 inches

Available

Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches

Madonna Ikon #2, 1982, mixed media collage on cotton fabric, 22 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches

Available

Black Madonna, 1982, woodcut, 23 1/2 x 19 inches

Black Madonna, 1982, woodcut, 23 1/2 x 19 inches

Available