by Chris Boïcos, 2000
Bill Utermohlen was born in a German immigrant family in south Philadelphia in 1933. After graduating from high school he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1951 to 1957. A thorough training under Walter Steumfig in what was then one of the most rigorous art academies in the U.S. produced from early on in his work a draftsmanship of exceptional precision and power.
In 1957 the artist came to Europe on the G.I. bill and travelled through France, Spain and Italy, where like many painters of his generation he developed a lifelong love for the work of Giotto and Piero della Francesca . The painting in Italy that impressed him most deeply, however, was Velasquez's densely psychological masterpiece, the Portrait of Pope Innocent X at the Doria Pamphili gallery in Rome, the same painting that inspired Francis Bacon's celebrated series of "Popes".
In the autumn of 1957 Utermohlen enrolled at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford where he met a fellow American and young struggling painter, Ron Kitaj. In 1962 he settled in London, where he met and married the art historian Patricia Utermohlen. Apart from an American interlude from 1972 to 1975, when he taught painting in Amherst college and in upstate New York, Bill has been a confirmed Londoner since the 1960s. 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 the portraits, still lives and drawings from the model which punctuate his entire career, 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 celebrated 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.
The painterly and romantic symbolism which characterizes the mythological paintings gives way in the "Cantos" to a powerful, sharply linear expressionism. The use of targets, the American flag, robotic figures, and brash colours respond also to the Pop imagery and styles of the 1960s, from Jasper Johns' paintings to psychedelic fashion design. The "Mummers" cycle, which includes the four paintings in the current exhibition "Di Nero Comic Club", "Liberty Clowns", "New Year's Morning", "Don't Try to Clark Street me", is more directly related to the artist's biography. The works are based on childhood memories of the brick streets of working class Philly, the burly Irish and Italian lads dressed for the New Year's Day parade in outlandish costumes, and the dark, smoky jazz bars of the bebop era.
These, as well as the later "War" and "Nude" cycles, show a predilection for decorative patterns that encase and flatten the three-dimensional figures, bringing to mind the compositions of the Viennese school, notably Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. A strong tension is created between the flattened space and clothing and the rounded limbs and heads. Bright, flat Pop colours also contrast with the tonal modelling of flesh.
The pictures are complex, even contradictory: the violent movements controlled by strong line, the moody and emotive atmosphere relieved by beautiful textures and decorative patterns. The tendency toward flat graphic design, rich pattern and strong colour, place Bill's painting within the style of the London figurative school of the 1960s: that of David Hockney, Patrick Caulfield, and Ron Kitaj.. At the same time his more classic modelling and precision in figure drawing give these earlier paintings a more strongly American pre-war realist flavour reminiscent of Hopper, Albright and Soyer. A major exhibition of portraits, jazz players and the "Cantos" was held at the Marlborough gallery in London in 1969.
Drawing from the model plays a central role in Bill's art as is testified by the numerous studies in charcoal of nudes and heads since the 1950s. Bill's nudes are quite different from the standard academic exercise in anatomy or graceful posing.
Rather than isolating the figure against a blank background the artist ties the model into the surrounding space of the studio, locking both unto a linear network on the surface of the paper. The result is a dynamic tension between strong linear contour and three-dimensional modelling, a tension which constitutes the essence of modern drawing in the tradition of Picasso, Matisse or Beckmann. The head studies are notable for their concentration on the psychology of the model. Character and mood are observed as closely as the structure of the head giving each model, man or woman, a distinctive presence altogether rare in life drawing and closer in feeling to the portrait. The absence of clothing, however, and the social environment usually attached to the portrait, gives these heads an unguarded and vulnerable quality without a social mask, that is ultimately very moving.
In his last major cycle of paintings, the "Conversation Pieces" of 1989-1991, Bill has re-created the atmosphere of what he considers to be the standard modern middle-class environment - people gathered around a table, talking, drinking, daydreaming. The underlying tensions, longings or sense of communion are revealed through carefully observed gestures and are amplified by the surrounding objects, colours and the subjective spatial arrangements. The central figure in most of the paintings is the artist's wife, Patricia, who serves as the visual and emotional anchor in the compositions. The more openly cubist space or the "Conversation Pieces", the flat patterns, flower and goldfish motifs, and the complex interaction of space and figures recall both late Braque, and the great Matisse interiors of 1909-1915. The result, as in "Night" and "Bed" in the current show, are superb decorative arrangements, calibrated like musical partitions yet infused with a muted, deeply human poetry.
In 1995 Bill Utermohlen was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Signs of his illness are retrospectively apparent in the work from the early 90s. In his lithographic illustrations for a book of Wilfred Owen's World War One poems published in Paris by Nova et Vetera in 1994, sliding and falling figures of wounded soldiers indicate a pre-occupation with disorientation and traumatic experience. Unstable space and sliding motifs are also apparent in the last Conversation pieces, notably "Night" and "Bed". In the works of 1995-1997 Bill's style changes dramatically. Thicker brushwork and rawer surfaces give a more urgent and expressionist feeling to his canvases. There is a greater concentration on self portraits in which a variety of states of mind - terror, sadness, anger, resignation - are openly expressed. Though more spontaneous, the surface of these last works is still supported by Bill's innate sense of drawing and structure which underpin the brushwork and give the paintings their true power. They are without doubt and despite their great sadness some of his best pictures yet.