Born Philadelphia, 5 December 1933 – Died London, 21 March 2007
William Utermohlen was born in south Philadelphia in 1933. 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. In the 1980s he painted two major murals for two great North-London institutions, the Liberal Jewish Synagogue at Saint John’s Wood and the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead.
Apart from portraits, still lives and drawings from the model Bill'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 Bill 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 William’s life together, describe the warmth and happiness of their apartment and the joy they took in the companionship of friends. However, signs of the disease that is about to strike William 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.
In his analysis of the Conversation Pieces, the French psychoanalyst, Dr. Patrice Polini underlines the spatial and temporal nature of the series’ titles: the district (Maida Vale), the postal code (W9), the time of day (Night), the season (Snow), the room (Bed), the event taking place (Conversation). According to Dr Polini the artist tries to fix these on canvas in an attempt to preserve his spatial and temporal bearings and the precarious happiness of which his wife speaks. In parallel, the artist concentrates on strong and simple sensorial impressions: the sound of voices, the taste of coffee, wine, and cigarettes, the feelings of warmth and cold, again in an attempt to fix his perceptions before they slip away. Dr. Polini also sees the centrality of Patricia Utermohlen in all the pictures as psychologically important. She is William’s strongest emotional anchor to his world. These late pictures are dedicated to her but also attempt to speak to her as the artist is gradually losing his capacity for verbal communication. Dr. Polini points out how the artist excludes himself from the circles of talking figures and, when he does show himself, places his figure in a separate world: sleeping and dreaming in Bed, communing with mute animals in Snow.
In his last works, the self-portraits of 1995-2000 William'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.
In Blue Skies 1995, his last large painting, William paints his reaction to his diagnosis: a devastated figure holding on to a table as on to a raft in the blue bleakness of an empty studio. The artist was admitted to the national hospital for neurology and neurosurgery at Queen Square and supervised by a team led by Dr. Martin Rossor and nurse Ron Isaacs. While at the hospital, William was encouraged to continue drawing and to portray himself. These drawings became the subject of a notable article published in June 2001 in the British medical journal The Lancet.
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, painted between 1995 and 2001, 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 with clarity and economy from within his predicament. To the very end, color, 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.
William Utermohlen made his last drawings in pencil from 2000 to 2002. He was taken care of by his wife, friends, and caregivers at home until his deterioration made his admission to the Princess Louise nursing home necessary in 2004. He died in Hammersmith hospital in London on March 21, 2007.
Since their exhibition by the Wellcome Trust in London in 2001 these last portraits have received an increased recognition by the medical community, the press and the public. They have been exhibited at the Fogg Museum of Art at the University of Harvard (2005), the Philadelphia Academy of Medicine , the New York Academy of Medicine (2006), at the Cité des Sciences in Paris, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles (2007) at the Chicago Cultural Center (2008) and the Musée de la Civilization, Quebec (2010). The greatest of the “Mummers” paintings, Old Glory 1970, was shown in a retrospective of figurative European art of the 1960’s at the Museo della Permanente in Milan, Italy (2011). A retrospective of the artist’s work - Pursuing the Ephemeral, Painting the Enduring: Alzheimer’s and the Artwork of William Utermohlen - was held at the Wakeley Gallery, Ames School of Art, Wesleyan University Bloomington Illinois in 2015. A second important retrospective exhibition – William Utermohlen, a Persistence of Memory – was held in central Chicago at the Loyola University Museum of Art (6 February 2016 to 23 July 2016).
Twelve of William Utermohlen’s late works will be on show in the exhibition Mirror Images – Reflections in Art and Medicine at the Kunstmuseum, Thun, Switzerland from 11 February to 30 April 2017.
The artist’s work is represented by:
Chris Boïcos Fine Arts in Paris.
Jennifer Norback Fine Art in Chicago.