While it was less of a surprise to find interesting exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center, probably the most moving was this exhibit of William Utermohlen's work, which was tucked away on the second floor. Utermohler was from Philadelphia, but lived and worked in London.
His mid-career works are quite colorful and tend to combine realistic portraits with odd off-center backgrounds or cut-outs. It's a little hard to describe what I mean, but if you look up the Dante Cycle or the Mummer cycle at this site, it should become a bit more apparent. Now the exhibit I saw had a fair number of the Mummer paintings, but none of the Dante Cycle paintings, which I think are even more powerful. As far as I can tell, there are very few publications devoted to Utermohlen aside from the short catalog from the 2008-9 exhibit (sponsored by Myriad Pharmaceuticals for reasons that will soon become apparent) and then a 2012 gallery publication from GV Art which has become extremely hard to come by, though it seems the main difference from the 2008-9 catalog was the inclusion of some late watercolors. I think that is a shame, as I really like his work and think he was a gifted artist that should be better known than simply due to his decline.
No question my favorites on view were the 6 paintings in the Conversation Pieces cycle. (The full set can be viewed here.) Snow was the real standout, showing an exploded house (just a bit Escher-esque), a bunch of people chatting at the table, two cats, some bright oranges and presumably a nod to Matisse with the inclusion of a fishbowl. The warm interior is in stark contrast to the cold, gray snowscape outdoors. The perspective is of course impossible, but still quite fun.
|William Utermohlen, Snow, 1990-91|
Bed was also nice, but Night was another fascinating piece. Here the fishbowl has gone black and is somehow mirrored in the ceiling (a glass skylight?). Some items seem to be floating, whereas the coffee grinder is only loosely anchored to the inky-black table.
|William Utermohlen, Night, 1990-91|
And here's a Matisse which Utermohlen may or may not have been "riffing" on.
|Henri Matisse, Gold Fish, 1914-15|
In the catalog and even more in the accompanying DVD, there is some retrospective analysis of this period of Utermohlen's work, claiming that his skewed sense of time-space perception was a sign of his encroaching Alzheimer's. I have a little trouble buying that. It seems to me Utermohlen still had full control of his artistic facilities and his lines and sense of color are terrific.
They do say there were warning signs about Utermohlen getting lost on the way to the studio and finally having to paint from home. The decline in his artistic abilities seems to come quickly after the Conversation Pieces were completed, presumably around 1993-4. Utermohlen got the diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease in 1995, and he responded with a terribly bleak painting (his last full-scale painting incidentally).
|William Utermohlen, Blue Skies, 1995|
After this, he largely retreats to smaller scale self-portraits that grow less detailed and eventually less assured. They are really very sad (even sadder than the last Rembrandt self-portraits), and I don't feel like posting them here. There are a number of places to find them -- this is as good as any. I doubt Utermohlen would have received even the limited attention he has gotten if it weren't for his diagnosis and then his response to it, but when I think of Utermohlen (which is actually surprisingly often for such an "unknown"), I prefer to focus on his glorious last painting cycle from 1990-91 before he was so cruelly afflicted.