Sunday, April 29, 2012

A retrospective of the artist William Utermohlen’s work is currently showing at GV Art (49 Chiltern Street, London,, until May 26.

William Utermohlen was born in Philadelphia in 1933, of German parents, and moved to London in 1965, where he lived until his death in 2007.

In 1995, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, yet continued to paint and draw until 2000. The current exhibition includes his earlier work, as well as the later work and self-portraits that post-date his diagnosis.

Blue Skies, 1995, was painted soon after the artist realised that he had Alzheimer’s disease. In it, we see a man forlorn and hunched over in sadness, alone and sitting at a table. Above, a skylight reveals blueness and a world that seems distant and removed.

In the accompanying video to the exhibition, William Utermohlen’s wife, the art historian Patricia Utermohlen draws our attention to earlier work, Conversation Pieces (1990-1991), painted a few years before the diagnosis, where the artist includes himself in the painting, but on the periphery, as if he were already sensing that he was outside the circle, there but no longer fully present.

All through his life as an artist, Utermohlen created many self-portraits (, beginning in 1955. Intense and complex works, there is a clear change in style following his diagnosis, as he more directly and urgently attempts to communicate something that is beyond words. In the pencil drawings we see a forlorn and resigned man, in the watercolours, the Mask series, the focus is on his head and skull, which is the target of Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the vividness of the colours, there is a palpable sense of despair and anguish.

Patricia Utermohlen also tells us that her husband shared the drawings he created following his diagnosis with his hospital team, the only way he could truly communicate his experience of living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Although Utermohlen died in 2007, his wife believes that his death in reality occurred in 2000, when he could no longer paint. Tragically, from that point he no even longer recognised his own work.

This exhibition is about more than the artist’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. It includes many wonderful earlier works, from his series based on Dante’s 33 cantos of the Inferno, to his series of lithograph illustrations for Wildred Owen’s World War 1 poetry collection. Utermohlen was an extraordinarily diverse artist, who had been painting and exhibiting for 40 years before his diagnosis. Alzheimer’s disease was a chapter, a tragic final chapter, in the life of an artist who had throughout his career shared his sense of self and identity in his portraits. In the initial stages of Alzheimer’s, he continued to do so, and they effectively and poignantly portray a man fragmented by his condition.