Self-Portraits of an Artist with Alzheimers

The late self-portraits of William Utermohlen, chronicling his descent into Alzheimer’s disease, have been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe. The intense personal psychological scrutiny that is evident in the artist’s late work is a pervasive aspect of his work from the beginning, and is central to his identity as an artist throughout his career. While other artists of great stature have reportedly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease no one has been able to capture the personal experience of dementia in such an articulate and powerful manner. William’s lifelong dedication to psychological observation and its translation into painting and drawing allows us to pinpoint, before the disease was diagnosed, the precise moments when the seeds of Alzheimer’s were in their nascence. Among the artists of his generation, he was uniquely dedicated to faithful representation of the visual and psychological spaces he inhabited. Even as other aspects of his reality were stripped away by the disease, that ability remained.

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Self-Portrait 1967 (pictured left)
MIXED MEDIA ON PAPER, 26.5 x 20 cm
ELAN PHARMACEUTICALS COLLECTION, SAN FRANCISCO

At the height of his creative powers, after having just finished his first great cycle of paintings depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, the artist glares at the viewer with an expression of mixed pride and pain. The features and skull are powerfully drawn, revealing William’s skills as a classic draftsman. The hunched shoulders, the receding hairline, and the delicate neck speak of premature aging and a sense of vulnerability. The three-quarter view of the head and the big, awkwardly projecting ear reappear in the compositions of his last self-portraits of 1996 to 1998. The penetrating gaze of the right eye retains its power but loses, in the last portraits, its assurance, which is replaced by anger or dread.

Head I 2000 (pictured right)
PENCIL ON PAPER , 40.5 X 33 CM

Head I 2000 is one of the last, frightening heads drawn in pencil by the artist. The artist has assimilated his drawing method to his destiny: to subsist while disappearing. Perception can still call forth a primal image, but what emerges is also foreign and threatening to the artist’s sense of self. A deepening crack runs through the center of the face in this haunting sketch. The staring eyes are now like empty dark cavities fixed onto a head turning into a skull.

Learn more about alzheimer’s disease. Hat tip: Jim