William Utermohlen, was on born December 4 1933 in South Philadelphia, the only son of a first generation German family. His father was a baker ,the family’s occupation, but through a series of mishaps by the time William’s father was ready to enter the trade the option was working in a factory producing standard white bread, thus he took no joy in his occupation. In 1951 his son, also called William won a scholarship from his High School to The Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, at that time the most prestigious art school in America. Here he received a thorough grounding in the traditional academic skills particularly draughtsmanship for which the school was famous. Already moving from the family environment this was exacerbated when he received a scholarship to travel to Europe in the summer of 1952. Like so many students before him he was swept away by the glories of the museums of France, Italy, Germany and England and the general lifestyle of Europe. In 1953 he was called into the American army for his national service, although he loathed every day of it , his time in the army provided him with ‘The G.I. Bill of Rights’ and therefore the financial ability to continue his studies. Remembering his sense of comfort in Europe he returned to take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad and arrived in England in June 1956 where he enrolled in the Ruskin School of Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the only English establishment agreed by the US educational services. Unsurprisingly he found himself in the company of other American ex army students, one of whom was RB Kitaj who stayed on in England after his time at the Ruskin. Upon the completion of the course William returned to Philadelphia in 1958 and found work in a frame shop, continuing to paint when ever he was able. Saving very hard he returned to England in 1962 determined to paint and stay for as long as he could. He found a flat quickly from a friend first met Oxford , who was giving up her flat to be married. She happened to be a friend of mine and it was here I met William.
We began to live together in a flat in Highbury, I was at that time working in industry as a shop designer, busy and away all day, William, a total romantic was able to begin to work on his first long series of pictures choosing for his subject the 35 Cantos from Dante’s Inferno. The flat was in a decrepit Victorian house which had fallen into disrepair and now was separated into several flats. The rooms were very large and so William was able to use the bedroom as a studio and thus was able to work on large pictures, each measuring five by four feet, each one complete in its self but inevitably part of the whole . William was completely committed to the scheme but quite impervious to their final destination. London, in the beginning of the sixties was finally coming out of the tired greyness of the post second world war period, everything seemed to be changing rapidly, life had became lighter and more optimistic. Those of us interested in the visual arts became aware of the ‘Pop Art’ movement which in England had taken off at the Royal College of Art where William’s former colleague, RB Kitaj had became known as one of the leaders. Before this , England and really all of Europe had been overtaken by the last romantic American movement of ‘Abstract Expressionism’ epitomised by the tragic figure of Jackson Pollock. This movement was now being overtaken by the beginning of Hard-edged Abstraction and Pop Art . Before this Figurative painting was never seen, never shown in any gallery, William, who was a committed figurative painter, felt increasingly out of touch, perhaps this is why he decided to embark upon the Dante series believing he could combine his love of the depiction of the figure with a kind of romantic fantasy. I was busily working for an art history degree in the evenings and so he was free to work without restraint (we had married in 1965 to satisfy the requirements of our mutual families). In hindsight I believe William always considered himself as an outsider, continuing with determination to paint what he believed even if against contemporary fashion. Occasionally managing to have small exhibitions. In 1963 at the Traverse Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, in 1965 and 1967 at Bonfiglioli Gallery in Oxford and finally in the same year, a project which was approached with great expectation, an exhibition at the Nordness Gallery in New York, which was disaster., completely ignored. The pattern of these exhibitions was always the same, although usually finding some admirers his work seemed unable attract the attention of serious critics. Of course in retrospect this is unsurprising because his work was so different in spirit from the current fashion, stressing as it did the independence and loneliness of the condition of the artist, an attitude at variance with the contemporary world which was celebrating the strident consumer led excitement of modern urban life
The Dante series show quite directly, how quickly William had developed stylistically. He had always painted very thinly, first setting the drawing, then glazing over delicately with colour upon colour and tone upon tone, always firmly committed to a kind of verisimilitude, I remember helping to light a bonfire in the garden at Highbury so that he could study carefully the form and colour of the flames. All of our friends were drawn into appearing as the protagonists in the various Cantos. In the later ones in circa 1966 one can see the mature artist appearing with new confidence. The forms became simpler, the composition, bolder, the space flatter, all of which was influenced, no doubt by the pop art work of Kitaj and Hockney. In Highbury we had shared the old house with sets of friends, all originally ex Oxford students, it was a happy period, but one bound to be temporary. One by one we all dispersed, we to a charming flat in Highgate, full of light and surrounded by trees, the others out of London. The Dante series and that period of our lives were at an end.
Suddenly the great opportunity occurred, Frank Lloyd of Marlborough Gallery came to see the work, possibly alerted following the great critical success of an earlier exhibition by R.B.Kitaj. In 1969 William had his first one man show in this major gallery, Another disaster, The press hated it, and of course the sales dried up , for William the disappointment was devastating. He is an extremely quiet man, he just became more withdrawn, but continued to work obsessively .Luckily there was always his passion for drawing, so about this time he began to teach Life drawing for several small art schools. In the great wide world outside our English media began to be bombarded us with stories of the Vietnam war. This was the time of the student anti-war marches, in America and England. We were on holiday in Europe, driving from Paris to Amsterdam to visit an old friend of William’s from the Oxford days
now living in Amsterdam and lecturing at the University. We stopped over in Brussels and after leaving dinner at a café we came upon a lighted window showing the television news of some sort of student riot. We continued our journey to our friend’s house where we found him in a great state of concerned agitation explaining that the night before we had seen the Kent State Riots and August Fry (our friend) was convinced that this was the beginning of the disintegration of our secure world . Dr Fry frequently came to London always visiting and often staying with us. Originally from Chicago he had married a woman from Holland and elected to stay in Europe. Both he and William were obsessed with the news from America, both relieved, but somehow guilty not to be serving in this unpopular war. This is the psychological background for the next large series William began to paint which he called ‘The Mummers Parade’.
William worked on these with great intensity, I now realise they combined his ambiguous attitude to his past life with his current obsession with the Vietnam war. In South Philadelphia, when William was a small boy there was once a year a time of great excitement, the Mummer’s Parade held on New Years Day. The procession still continues but it is much changed. In William’s pictures we see the men parading circa 1942-5, the time of the second World War . At that time in the parade only men took part, always dressed as women, blacked up and wearing overshoes painted gold and they danced to the tune of ‘Golden Slippers’ dressed in the most elaborate costumes. Marching in ethnic groups, often to the tune of black musicians. The men and boys who marched were white, mostly men working by day in the dockyards of South Philadelphia. But for this one day the city was theirs, they marched in the freezing cold up Main Street to City hall. The men had taken the whole year to practice the ‘strut’ and the wives, not allowed to take part, had fashioned the costumes. William longed to be part of it, learning the strut and begging his father to allow him to join in the celebration, but the older William was fearful that his beloved only child would have an accident, the young William could only stand on sidelines longing to be part of the excitement All of his current feelings about the poverty and the latent brutality of South Philadelphia is in these pictures, the frenetic dancing backed by the figures of the Philadelphia police with their truncheons at the ready, his almost brutal contemporary dismissal of his family, his longing to get away and the overwhelming guilt following his abandonment of his home and country, overlaid with his current anger and frustration over the war in Vietnam. This all culminates in a huge canvas ‘Old Glory’ circa (72x120 inches) The American flag,( post Jasper Johns) had become an ambivalent symbol. In William’s childhood, the days at school had always begun with the saluting of the flag. Now the flag seemed to stand as a symbol of imperial arrogance, and also a banner for anti-war protesters. In this picture William combines the heroic figures of the horsemen of the apocalypse with the tragic figures of the remembered dock workers, reminding the onlooker, in this war, young men could escape the carnage it if they had the money to continue their education, perhaps even leave the country to study abroad.
In 1972 a new opportunity occurred. I had finished my first degree and was anxious to change careers and had already begun to teach art history. William was offered a post of ‘artist in residence’ at Amherst College, a highly prestigious boys college in Massachusetts we accepted with alacrity During William’s time at the Ruskin he had become friendly with a fellow American, Harry Deutchbein, older than William, Harry had always been both friend and mentor. He had settled back in America and remarried. It was agreed that we should join the Deutchbeins at the Great Lakes where we would be given their car, a Volvo .I would drive the car museum hopping to Massachusetts. It was a miracle journey, enabling us to see so many great collections and was my introduction to America. William had never wanted to drive, although he finally managed to drive badly in order able to operate at all in that large country. Amherst was a splendid experience and William settled down to teaching the very bright and privileged students, but still continuing to paint soldiers and the war which was still raging. The peace and security of Amherst was shattered by a tragedy. A black student was drowned in the Olympic sized swimming pool. The reason for the disaster opened up, for William again the class and racial division in his country. The young black man who was exceedingly able had to pass a swimming test to finally qualify as a student of the College. It was overlooked by the faculty that black men often had not been taught to swim, and so the life guard was not alerted. The boy drowned with other students swimming above him, totally unaware of the tragedy. William painted a desperately moving painting of the event in which he uses the black figure as a pieta being lifted from the pool by his white fellow students.
We stayed at the College for two years, during which time I was able to attend Massachusetts University for an Master’s degree course in Art History. Harry Deutchbein had given William a nineteenth century barn on thirteen acres in Upper State New York, the remains of the family estate, William decided to turn it into a house, which he did with the help of one student. The plan was to stay half a year in the US and some of the time in London. Finally, both jobless we had to give up the dream and return to London, where at least I was sure of being employed. We returned to our Highgate flat, I became employed by Syracuse University and William began a new experimentation combining the photographic images with oil paint. We moved again, this time further into London, at Holborn to a really beautiful eighteenth century house, where William, for the first time had a large well lit studio.
Again our house was surrounded with friends, one of whom asked William to paint her portrait. He was astonished, never having expected to work for a commission, which was a new experience and of course meant that his work was to a large extent dictated by the client. William is an extremely witty man always quietly observing his companions, missing nothing behind the mask, often inventing names for the individual that summed the personality. The young woman who had requested the portrait came for a sitting in winter wearing a white coat with a hood lined with white fox fur, for us she was ever after known as ‘White Christmas’. The portrait he painted, sees her seated on her couch dressed in blue, backed by decorated blue cushions, her beautiful happy face glowing somehow golden, like the sun. After that success he would from time to time paint portraits of our friends, each individual carefully researched and identified by the objects that most determined their characters.
In the nineteen eighties William was commissioned to paint a large mural for the Liberal Jewish Synagogue St John’s Wood, London NW8, the subject chosen was the Seasons. It remains today as one of the most joyful and colourful of his works. In order to respect the tradition of the mural surface he changed his method of paint application. He had always admired Piero della Francesca, and when planning the mural he looked again at the master. He was painting a history subject, yet he wanted it to be current. The clothes were a problem, his decision was innovative, he dressed them like young healthy hippies, bathed in golden light. The paint quality was dry and mixed with a coarse substance thus, giving an overall wall texture reminiscence of fresco, fully in keeping with spirit of the work. He undertook another mural for the Royal Free Hospital, here his brief was the history of the hospital, it is not so successful in my opinion. During this time he was teaching at the City and Guild’s Art School on a part time basis, and I am told by his students he was an excellent teacher, responding to each individual and answering their specific needs with sensitivity and understanding.
In 1989 wee moved to our present address in Little Venice and here began, what was to be his last series. The flat is on the second floor of a large 1847 stucco house bordering the Grand Union Canal in Little Venice, opposite Browning’s pond. It was a lateral conversion, so the rooms are large. When we moved we opened the space and put in roof lights. The main room has windows front and back as well as three huge roof lights. It is lined with book- cases to hold some of our extensive library and we painted the walls yellow. I have gone into this detail to explain my explanation of the pictures William painted which have since been called ‘The Conversation Pieces.’ These are the pictures discussed so eloquently by Dr Patrice Polini, Psychiatrist and friend. I see them a little differently, there is no doubt that William felt completely comfortable in the new space, he had a good studio, well lit and in which he would gather a few friends together to draw from the model, a practice he kept until he could no longer manage to hold charcoal. I believe the pictures to be a celebration of our life together and until circumstances decreed differently, he painted persistently one after another, describing the warmth and happiness of our new flat and the joy we took together in the companionship of our friends.
Things changed a little, one of my part-time jobs altered and for financial reasons I was forced to begin to conduct classes on Art History in William’s studio. We found through the good offices of friends, a suitable studio in Old Street, East London. Here William was commissioned by Nova et Vetera (Paris) to illustrate a poem of his choice with suitable illustrations. William chose the poetry of Wilfred Owens, a First World War poet who perished in that war. He used lithography for the illustrations, most on the subject of death. Here the fragmentation and distortion of the figures are unsettling, but correctly echoing the sentiments of the poetry. However we were forced to realise that William was not well. He painted his last large picture, a self -portrait ‘Blue Skies,’ in 1995. Here the artist sits hanging on to the table in front of him desperately, holding on, while above him, the sky-light opens to a blue sky.
William was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995 and was immediately put on to new drug which had to be monitored. We regularly attended the neurological hospital in Queen’s Square where we were fortunate to find in nurse Ron Isaacs who regularly assessed him, a sympathetic listener. William, bravely began to paint himself, desperately trying to understand what was happening to his mind , as the pictures progressed he showed them to Nurse Isaacs and other members of the group who were attending him, all of whom were part of Dr Rossor’s team.. They found them clinically interesting they asked permission to create a paper for the ‘Lancet’. In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness. The great talent remains, but the method changes. He sometimes uses water-colour and paints a series of masks, perhaps because he could more quickly express his fear. In both the oils and water-colours these marvellous self portraits express his desperate attempt to understand his condition. There is a new freedom of expression, the paint is applied more thickly, art-historically speaking the artist seems less linear and classical, more expressionist, and I see ghosts of his. German heritage. William is still alive, but can no longer draw and seems to have withdrawn into a solitary and private world, sometimes making sounds which I imagine for him is talking, and very occasionally, I believe he recognises me.
Pat Utermohlen September 2006