The last time I wept at an exhibition was probably at the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust display a decade ago. I don’t recall ever being moved to tears by an exhibition of art; this unprecedented event occurred at last week’s opening of the William Utermohlen retrospective at GV Art.
William Utermohlen is best known for the late work produced after his devastating diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 62 (his family suspects the first signs were already showing some 6 years earlier). Against clinical expectation he continued to draw and paint for 7 years after his diagnosis, encouraged by the clinicians in whose care he was placed. The work has proved to be an invaluable source of insight for neuroscientific study and has been widely exhibited at institutions particularly within the ‘art/science’ realm.
But much more than this, the late works have an enormous and enduring power to move. The painting Utermohlen completed after his diagnosis, Blue Skies, shows a man whose world has become untethered; the furniture blends seamlessly into the mustard background, offering no weight or stability; he clings to the table and coffee cup as if in a desperate effort to anchor himself; the skylight opens onto a dark, forboding, featureless sky, offering no sense of solace or liberty from the prison in which the beleagured figure is trapped. The sketch entitled Desperate Figure from the same year is exhibited nearby, showing a man in a similar but even more inconsolable pose. It is a truly distressing portrayal of psychological agony.
The drawings exhibited in one of the lower galleries from 1995-6, Self-portrait with cat, Double self-portrait and Self-portrait (scowling) are intense studies of Utermohlen’s emotional state soon after his diagnosis, revealing resignation, anger and a deep sense of loss. Other sketches, such as Car Driver (1996) and Twisted Figure and Chair (1997) show his steady physical deterioration through the loss of motor skills. He represents himself like a featureless dummy, whose soft, twisted and useless limbs can no longer be properly manipulated. They speak of a body almost at war with itself as it becomes increasingly crippled by illness. These works bear witness to a slow, excruciating fragmentation of mind, body and spirit, leading to the eventual and complete effacement of self, most evident in Erased Self Portrait (1999). The angry scratchings out evident in this work possess, like Self Portrait (Green) a powerfully Baconian resonance, an artist who intrigued Utermohlen throughout his life and whose figures inhabit a similarly hellish world as Utermohlen’s.
The arrangement of these works alongside those from the decades before his illness shows with great clarity the fragmentation of both body and soul which preoccupied Utermohlen throughout his career. Physical and mental traumas sustained through war, political repression and – in the case of the great Dante cycle – deviation from a medieval moral order – are on view throughout the gallery. Displayed upstairs is Utermohlen’s response to Canto XXIV of Dante’s Inferno, The Dust Again, portrays a key sinner – thief Vanni Fucci – in Dante’s epic poem, whose punishment is a snakebite that causes him to be incinerated, but whose form is then reconstituted in order to suffer the same punishment for all eternity. At the figure’s feet the disintegration into ashes has already begun. Here both the identity of the sinner and his physical form is attacked as divine retribution for the sin of theft, which, for Dante, represents an assault on the human mind. The centre-piece of the upper gallery is the monumental Old Glory from the ‘Mummers’ cycle of paintings, which also depicts fragmented bodies. Here participants in the Mummers parade (a traditional celebration in Philadelphia, where Utermohlen lived as a child), dressed in patriotic costumes, are all but subsumed by the American flag, leaving only their heads and hands visible. The way in which these disembodied body parts, some in gestures of desperation, are subject to a downwards gravitational pull is eerily reminiscent of a descent into hell, an element of the Last Judgement often seen on medieval church tympana. These patriotic figures – doubling for the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War – are menaced by the presence of the skeletal Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, just discernible at the top of the painting and partially obscuring the Stars and Stripes behind them.
In the downstairs gallery is the most literally visceral portrayal of the human figure racked, disfigured and dismembered. Canto XXVIII An Eye for an Eye for all Eternity depicts the terrible punishment meted out to sinners who used words to foment violence. The sowers of discord are slashed, beheaded, disembowelled – this is the preeminent example of the Dantean ‘contrapasso’ or divine retribution, wherein the punishment is made to fit the crime through its resemblance to the form of the crime itself.
The Earth-bound hell of war is visualised in the adjacent gallery where Utermohlen’s commemorative painting of the Vietnam War hangs alongside his lithograph illustrations for an anthology of Wilfred Owen’s World War I poetry. The style of the latter has an exquisite simplicity but the figures are tragically depersonalised, lacking all or most of their facial features as if wholly shorn of their identity. Bodies are injured, bleeding, fragmented, falling, or assailed by Death in the shape of a bullet-spitting skeleton. In Bird of Paradise the pity of war is embodied in the dead soldier lying dead between two guards. The handling and pose of the human figures have the beauty and monumentality of Mantegna, amplifying the tragedy of its subject.
Not all the figures on show are subject to these physical and mental torments. Utermohlen’s portrait paintings, of which two are included in the exhibition, are warm, psychologically penetrating and deeply individualised depictions. Portrait of Rosamund Fokschaner is a rich and resplendent painting of a woman whose pose and direct gaze speaks of a strong inner confidence, its luxurious decorative background and highly patterned dress clearly evidence of Matisse’s influence. Penny Mather, painted two years after Bryan Organ’s portrait of Diana, Princess of Wales of which it is reminiscent, also shows a woman in self-assured pose, relaxed yet upright (emphasised by the verticality of the format), and despite – or because of – the minimalism of the décor around her there is a strong sense of class and affluence imparted to the portrait. Meanwhile Utermohlen’s life drawings study and celebrate the beauty of the body. These are sensuous, often erotic, depictions of bodies at leisure, supple and relaxed, with strong outlines reinforcing their solidity and wholeness.
The compelling and deeply moving story of William Utermohlen’s descent into and battle with illness, chronicled in his late works, is not as widely known as it deserves; the work predating his illness even less so. It is to be hoped that this retrospective can not only bring his name to a wider audience, but can also ensure that the illness and the works produced in its wake do not obscure the man, the artist he was, and the continuity of themes, stylistic range and quality of his oeuvre as a whole.
William Utermohlen (1933-2007), Retrospective, runs at GV Art London until 26th May.
This piece was originally published on Urban Times here.