If you Google “William Utermohlen” today, the first page will be Bored Panda: “Artist With Alzheimer’s Drew Self Portraits For 5 Years Until He Could Barely Remember His Own Face”. I discovered the painter recently and was intrigued by his range of works and his inner life. I got to learn more about him through his representative Chris Boïcos of Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, based in Paris, France and Paxos, Greece.
William Utermohlen was born in south Philadelphia in 1933 and died in London in 2007. He studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1951 to 1957 and on the G.I. Bill at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford in 1957-58. In 1962, he settled in London, where he met and married the art historian Patricia Redmond. In 1967, he received his first important London show at the Marlborough gallery. London life and London characters have most particularly marked his numerous portraits which constitute one of the richest aspects of his work.
Utermohlen’s art can be arranged in six clear thematic cycles: The “Mythological” paintings of 1962-63, the “Cantos” of 1965-1966 inspired by Dante’s Inferno, the “Mummers” cycle of 1969-1970 depicting characters from South Philadelphia’s New Year’s Day parade, the “War” series of 1972 alluding to the Vietnam war, the “Nudes” of 1973-74 and finally the “Conversation Pieces”, the great decorative interiors with figures, of 1989-1991.
In 1995, Utermohlen was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Signs of his illness are retrospectively apparent in the work of the early 90s notably in the “Conversation Pieces”.
These works, which can be seen as a celebration of Patricia and Utermohlen’s life together, describe the warmth and happiness of their apartment and the joy they took in the companionship of friends. However, indications of the disease that is about to strike the painter are also apparent in the shifting perceptions of space, objects, and people. They are premonitions of a new world of silence and sensory deprivation about to close in on the artist. Clearly the artist’s most openly biographical pictures, this cycle centers on his wife, his friends, and his immediate environment: the objects, books, and paintings that have made his life meaningful and towards which he feels the greatest attachment.
Alterations in spatial perception become clear particularly in the topsy-turvy space in Snow, where William indicates the way to his new studio in the house on the mezzanine above the dining area. The viewer negotiates the many obstacles in the space—the green chairs around the red dining room table, the blue table with the oranges, the fish tank, the creeping green plant—to finally reach the staircase leading up to the overhanging mezzanine painted in a violent red. The green door at the back opens to a foreboding darkness as in Bed.
In his last works, the self-portraits of 1995-2000, Utermohlen’s style changes dramatically. Terror, sadness, anger and resignation are expressed as the artist fights to preserve his artistic consciousness against the gradual progress of dementia.
Patricia Utermohlen comments on this time: “as each small self-portrait was completed, William showed it to his nurse, Ron Isaacs. Ron visited the studio, photographing every new work. Ron’s conviction that William’s efforts were helping to increase the understanding of the deeply psychological and traumatic aspects of the disease undoubtedly encouraged William to continue.”
The last self-portraits are indeed unique artistic, medical and psychological documents. They portray a man doomed yet fighting to preserve his identity and his place in the world in the face of an implacable disease encroaching on his mind and senses. With courage and perseverance, the artist adapts at each point his style and technique to the growing limitations of his perception and motor skills, to produce images that communicate his predicament with extraordinary clarity and economy. To the very end, colour, brushwork, and line retain their artistic and expressive vocation, the result of a lifetime dedicated to visual and psychological observation and the faithful rendering of facts.
Utermohlen assimilates his drawing method to his destiny. He mourns the self that he has lost. At the end, a simple grey head remains, a skull stripped of flesh and features, signifying brokenness and oblivion. It is a primal image. It is frightening but also movingly beautiful, as it represents the artist’s great will to subsist in the face of all pain and extinction.
Images used with permission.