William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at age sixty-two. Later self-portraits show us a man who seems awkward, confused and progressively isolated from the world around him. In fact, isolation seems to be the primary theme of all his work, beginning with a bug-eyed self portrait done thirty years earlier.
This exhibit focuses primarily on “living and struggling with dementia,” as gallery signage puts it. Since they anticipate the frozen masks that his self-portraits will later become, several examples from his Mummers series (1958-1970) are included. Growing up in Philadelphia, the artist was fascinated by this holiday parade of colorful clowns. Despite their expressive antics, the all-male, all-white, working-class participants feel grimly trapped in their costumes. Does the artist admire or abhor them? Is it a story that he can tell?
There is no such ambivalence in the paintings called “Conversation Pieces” (1990-1991), all six of which have been brought together for this exhibition. The setting is his domestic world, and he loves it with all the joy and excitement that early Modernists could give to interior views. In homage to the styles that inspired them, works by Matisse and Japanese ukiyo-e artists hang on the walls of the comfortable apartment that he depicts. Conflating his love of family and painting, and possibly driven by his anxiety of losing both, these are masterpieces of contemporary American art, with expert use of color, perspective and dramatic characterization. Especially compelling is “Snow,” with its multiple aerial perspectives, strong patterns, vibrant colors and contrasting temperatures.
That final, triumphant series was completed five years before his diagnosis. It should have summoned a more complete retrospective of his earlier work, including portraits of the artist’s alienated friends in London and all five thematic series that range from the lost souls of Dante’s “Inferno” to the tragedy of America’s war in Vietnam.
It’s too bad that Utermohlen has primarily achieved recognition as a poster child for Alzheimer’s. The consequences of a deteriorating brain are far more predictable than his ultimately successful struggle to find a narrative suitable for his painterly talents.
Through July 23 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan.