William Utermohlen’s critical works reveal extent of Alzheimer’s disease

In a conversation with the late American painter’s wife, Patricia Utermohlen, STIR discovers how William created critical artistry, highlighting the conflux of art and mental wellness.

by Manu Sharma Published on : Oct 10, 2020

October 10, World Mental Health Day, is observed by furthering discussion around the broad topic of mental health as well as the various fields it interacts with. In order to add value to this discourse, STIR approached art historian and critic Patricia Utermohlen, whose late husband, American painter William Utermohlen, produced critical work highlighting the conflux of artistry and Alzheimer’s disease. We also spoke with Chris Boïcos, who owns the Chris Boïcos Fine Arts gallery and has organised several exhibitions presenting the work of various artists, including William Utermohlen.

1996 Utermohlen Self Portrait with Red Shirt | William Utermohlen | STIRworld
1996 Utermohlen Self Portrait with Red Shirt Image: Debra Haley

The artist, William was born in South Philadelphia in 1933, and as Patricia told me over the phone, the South Philadelphia of his time was divided along language lines. As his parents were German immigrants, his family would have likely lived in the German speaking section, however, the Germans who had lived in that area had all moved out and assimilated across the United States. As a result of this inward migration, the Utermohlens found themselves in the Italian bloc. Patricia further expanded on her late husband’s childhood by explaining that racism and ethnic divisiveness prevailed within Philadelphia, leading to the young boy being dissuaded from playing outside by his parents for fear of bullying. I wonder if being cautioned against the outside world prompted a young William to look inwards, leading to the development of his startling artistic aptitude.

1997 Utermohlen Self Portrait (Green) | William Utermohlen | STIRworld
1997 Utermohlen Self Portrait (Green) Image: Courtesy of Estate of the Artist, on deposit at Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, Paris

William would go on to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford, and later, it was here that he would meet Patricia. Apart from certain exceptions, his work is generally broken up into six thematic cycles, these being the Mythological paintings (1962-63), the Cantos paintings (1965-66), which were inspired by Dante’s inferno, the Mummers cycle (1969-70), based on the Mummers New Year’s Day Parade from Philadelphia, the War series (1972), alluding to the Vietnam War, the Nudes (1973-74) and finally, the Conversation Pieces (1989-91), which were large interior paintings, depicting scenes of quiet relaxation shared by the Utermohlens and their friends. However, it is one of the aforementioned exceptions, specifically, the self-portraits William would create after 1996, that is of central interest to the topic of mental wellness here: having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s during the previous year, he had been encouraged by a neurological hospital nurse named Ron Isaacs to begin drawing portraits of himself. When these were shown to Isaacs and the other members of the medical team he was on, they were found to be clinically fascinating, and eventually became the subject of a paper for the Lancet.

1999 Utermohlen Erased Self Portrait | William Utermohlen | STIRworld
1999 Utermohlen Erased Self Portrait Image: Courtesy of Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, Paris

The medical team, led by Dr. Martin Rossor, studied these progressively abstract self-portraits as depicting the gradual regression in self-recognition ability that patients of Alzheimer’s experience. Patricia expanded upon the personal impact this had on William in a written interview, and told STIR that he used the process to try and “explain to himself, in the only way he could, the terrible anxiety he felt about his changed self”. The art created by him during this time highlights the condition known as Agnosia, which is a symptom of Alzheimer’s that leads to the decline in both, self-recognition ability as it was mentioned above, as well as object-recognition ability. With regards to the latter, William’s work at this point can be compared to the paintings of English artist Ivan Seele, who created several object depictions teetering on the brink of pure recognition and abstraction.

1996 Utermohlen Masque (Clown) | William Utermohlen| STIRworld
1996 Utermohlen Masque (Clown) Image: Courtesy of Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, Paris

Along with these self-portraits, William also painted several “masques” in the mid-90s, which Patricia has interpreted as revealing traces of his German heritage, thereby connecting these to the German Expressionist movement. When I asked her to expand upon this, she wrote back telling me that the “reference to German Expressionism refers to method”. She then compared this to his earlier artworks and told me that in “other works before the last self-portraits, his preparation was carefully constructed, many drawings, some photographs, all before the final placement on the canvas”. His work during this time, then, can be seen as an expression of pure emotion, responding to the situation he found himself in.

1990-91 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces- Night| William Utermohlen | STIRworld
1990-91 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces- Night Image: Courtesy of Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, Paris

In hindsight however, it is believed that the earliest signs of William’s declining mental health are visible in the Conversation Pieces from the early 90s. This opinion is generally attached to the irregular spatial configurations within these pieces as well as the recurring presence of a green door that leads to total darkness. Patricia challenged the first belief by pointing out that William was one to play with spatial configurations even in much earlier works, and on the subject of the door, also explained that, “thinking formally, the black line separates the room from the hall which leads to the studio, thus creating the intimate space of the bedroom”. She continued by writing that “it is important to place William in the post Pop Art movement. He adapted the flat poster colouring of that period to his own picture making. One must always remember he had classical art education, he was a superb draughtsman in the classical manner, but always adapting this to the flat poster like space of modernism”.

1991 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces | William Utermohlen| STIRworld
1991 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces- Bed Image: Courtesy of Estate of the Artist, on deposit at Chris Boïcos Fine Arts, Paris

When asked to comment on these pieces, Chris Boïcos shared his insight into the artist’s work by stating that “they represent the artist's last attempt at creating large-scale pictures of a very personal nature before losing his capacity to paint on this scale after the series.” I also mentioned that I found it fascinating how William Utermohlen’s work straddles both the artistic and the medical worlds, and asked him what he thought of using art as a tool to build empathy, awareness, and in this specific case, even scientific understanding of issues pertinent to mental wellbeing. Chris responded by writing that William’s later work “is a remarkable attempt by the artist to communicate his shifting physical and psychological perception of his environment, people close to him and himself through the symbolic language of art at the time when he could not communicate any of this verbally”.

He continued by explaining that this work “reveals that even at the onset of dementia, and for many years after, patients can be profoundly aware of their condition and can think through their own feelings, perceptions and limitations though they cannot express them through language anymore. Bill went on painting and drawing, concentrating increasingly on his own self-portrayals, for a period of 10 years from the visible onset of the disease, from 1990 to 2000. So, a person in the midst of dementia remains a thinking and reflecting being and a unique individual despite appearances”.

1991 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces- Snow| William Utermohlen | STIRworld
1991 Utermohlen- Conversation Pieces- Snow Image: Private collection, Chicago, on loan to Loyola University, Chicago

Finally, he ended with this: “painting or drawing can be used as tools of communication by assistants for patients, helping them express feelings or perceptions that, frustratingly, they cannot anymore through language or writing”.

William Utermohlen’s work is represented by Chris Boïcos Fine Arts in Paris, France, Jennifer Norback Fine Arts in Chicago, USA and GV Art in London, UK. Each can be contacted for more information regarding the sale of prints or reproductions.

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