Warhol Superstar Ultra Violet’s Exclusive 2011 Interview with BlackBook

Image from Ultra Violet’s collection, available on her Facebook page. Ultra Violet pictured at far right.

 

Andy Warhol’s infamous proclamation that “everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes” has taken on the same mythic quality as “Let them eat cake.” (Words that, for the record, Marie Antoinette never actually uttered.) In fact, if you consider the rather vapid twin phenomena of reality TV and rampant social media, fame has indeed become a genuine throwaway proposition, something with all the ephemeral value of wolfing down a Twinkie or a Ding Dong.

Warhol superstar Ultra Violet had seized upon the prophetic power of that phrase for the title of her 1988 autobiography, eventually published in seventeen languages. It was the first, and still arguably the most perspicacious tome assessing the epochal cultural shockwaves that emanated from the legendary incubator of depravity, betrayal, and, of course, art that was The Factory.

A restless, disruptive French girl from the little Rhone-Alpes commune of La Tronche, Isabelle Colin Dufresnse arrived in New York in 1954 only to immediately find herself muse to the great Salvador Dali. A deeply jealous Andy Warhol stole her away and subsequently facilitated her transformation into his most prized Superstar, the impossibly glamorous and mind-bogglingly inimitable Ultra Violet.

 

Ultra Violet image 5

Ultra Violet with Salvador Dali. Image from the artist’s collection, available on her Facebook page.

 

She had since carried on with an acclaimed but helter-skelter art career that had found her work exhibited from Belgium to Switzerland to Israel to Art Basel Miami. She is also featured in the permanent collection at Paris’ Centre Pompidou. Most recently she was asked to participate in the 9/11 memorial exhibit at CUNY in 2011, and her striking modern-classical sculpture, a palindromic use of the ill-famed date in Roman numerals, was one of the most arresting works of art devoted to the memory of that culturally and politically pivotal event.

Madame Dufrense passed away from cancer Saturday, June 14 at the age of 78. Here we revisit a fascinating 2011 interview BlackBook conducted with the New York legend.

 

Warhol’s statement that everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes has proven deeply prophetic.

Yes, that was the title of my book. I’m trying to be famous for sixteen minutes, but that extra minute is so hard.

How have you tried to carry on with Warhol’s socio-cultural legacy?

The night Warhol died, he came to me in a dream. I took it as an omen that where he left off — this sounds very pretentious — I should take over. The two years before he died he was doing work with spiritual quotations. He was raised very religious. He went away from it, but he went back to it. Personally, I was born a mystic, and have always been very interested in spiritual matters. People believe there is more than one sun, and that Christ is in the Central Sun. I did some reading from the scriptures, every phrase that has the word ‘light’ in it. Light equates to truth and God. So I think that’s maybe my spiritual contribution, and that’s where I meet what Warhol was about in the last years of his life.

You were a muse to Salvador Dali. What then attracted you to Warhol? They were exceedingly different, as artists and as people.

Oh, no doubt! I came from France, and the first person I met when I came off the boat was Salvador Dali. I realized that I was ‘surreal’, which I never knew until I met him. Then one day Dali introduced me to Warhol. I knew Surrealism was going to end, like every movement, and I was in New York to ride the Pop Art wave. I was hypnotized by Warhol; he hypnotized people. There were a lot of other pop artists, but he was so clever to have that huge silver loft. The door was open so anyone could come in, and the whole world came through. It was very exciting, the whole group at The Factory was so unique.

Dali and Warhol were competing for you?

I used to see Dali and Warhol at the same time, and Warhol would say, ‘Dali is too old, give him up.’ He was very jealous, because he wanted to have the fame of Dali. Warhol copied a lot from Dali’s technique on how to be famous. When the astronauts came back to Earth, I think it was Time magazine that gave a dinner. Me and Andy were invited, and Dali was not. That was a sign that things were turning.

Did you feel that the denizens of The Factory were more inspiring each other or competing with one another?

None of the above. It was a very hedonistic era, the dawning of the nuclear age, and somehow we always felt that there was only fifteen more minutes to live. So we just lived to the fullest. Maybe some of them were conspiring, I don’t know. I was innocent and having fun…and wasting time, probably.

I can’t imagine you look back on it as wasting time.

I’ll tell you why. Because I could have taken photos every single day, I could have recorded more. We were photographed by the whole world, so I thought it was not necessary. I do have lots of tapes from that era, but still I could have done much more. I could have done my art, but I did not; I started much later.

What is your first recollection of meeting the Velvet Underground?

At The Factory, a rehearsal. They were rather frightening, aggressive and confrontational.

Did you have a sense that Warhol was trying to get something similar out of yourself and the VU?

To tap into your youthful energy and ideas as a way of elevating his own art. Mind you, we were there willingly, happily, hedonistically. I am very grateful to Warhol and the Velvet Underground for being instrumental in shaping me, for good or worst.

Your autobiography was considered a definitive account of those times.

When Warhol died in ’87, I wrote an article for New York magazine, and subsequently two publishers called me and they said ‘We like what you wrote, do you have more?’ And I did keep a journal. My book was the first one out after his death.

 

Ultra Violet image 2

 

Art seems to be much more of a business now. Do you feel that Andy is in some ways responsible for that?

Oh, no doubt, no doubt. But you know, the life of Andy was unbelievable. He was born in Pittsburgh to immigrants, and when he dies, he’s worth about $800 million, and he has a foundation that now sponsors art. What a trajectory. But when you were with him it was always, ‘Oooh, what should I do? Oooh, help me.’

But he knew exactly what he was doing.

I suppose, because it cannot happen by accident.

Warhol’s work is now coveted as much as the Old Masters. How much of it do you think is based on Warhol the artist, and how much on his cult of celebrity?

It’s mixed. When Andy died, Sotheby’s auctioned his personal belongings and they had seven catalogs. Seven! But there was not one piece of contemporary art in his home. Andy hated contemporary art. As you entered his home, you had the impression that it was an 18th Century marquis that lived there. So odd, so strange. I can speak about his art, though. I meet a lot of young kids, and they say, ‘Oh, you knew Warhol!’ So I say, ‘Tell me about Warhol, explain his art to me.’ And no words come out.

So what do you think it was about Andy’s work?

People don’t really understand the genius of Warhol, and I’m going to explain it now. What Warhol presented was the reality of the life in the American 1960s. Meaning, the front page of the newspaper with the ambulance crash, Jackie Kennedy in mourning because JFK was just assassinated, the first man that walked on the Moon. He was a chronicler of American history. That was his power, presenting life as it was then, matter-of-fact, as is, with no embellishment. And he’s actually the child of capitalism, because it was the era of manufacturing. Dali thought the Campbell’s Soup can was unbelievable, like a coup de poing, a blow to the art world. But what’s the meaning of it? Well, art has always represented the still life. And the Campbell’s Soup can is the 60s industrial age still life. Warhol represented the American dream; but he also represented the disasters, car crashes, suicides, most wanted men, the atomic mushroom. He represented the Yin and the Yang of American civilization at a time when the USA was the uncontested leader of the world, the American Empire. But is it worth $80 million? That’s another story.

I don’t think there’s any right answer to that.

But there is an answer. And the answer is that we are a civilization of worshippers. And what happened to all the civilizations of worshippers? They perished. That’s why I like using the Roman numerals to represent 9/11. Was it a turning point in the decline of the United States? Are we on the brink of perishing?

How did you get involved in the 9/11 exhibit?

I am an artist and a New Yorker, so I had to do something about 9/11. The question was what, of course. The more I played with the idea, I realized that 9/11 is actually a palindrome in Roman numerals. Graphically I think it’s quite magical, it has power. I wanted to do something not political, because 9/11 is still sensitive, still a painful and unresolved event. So it’s just the marking of time. As an artist, I think you have a moral responsibility when dealing with 9/11.

 

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Ultra Violet in her studio

 

So how much of Andy’s influence is present in your art now?

I’m in the 9/11 show with maybe about thirty artists. And you see their work, and it’s someone lying on a mattress, or it’s a photo of a cross, and it’s like, hmm, okay. How do I know that’s about 9/11? But what Warhol taught me was to get to the essence. You have to get to the heart of it.

Andy is recalled with quite a bit of love and hate. How do you feel now about him?

I think everything was extremely calculated. If he was with people, he wanted to know what he could gain from them, or did they know any famous people, and could he meet that famous person? Andy was the sweetest and the meanest. He lived with his mother for forty-five years, his mother dies, and he doesn’t go to the funeral. Typical Warhol. Whatever you might say about him is true; he was the genius and the total idiot. I really mean it. Some people would say he was very kind, but you need to know the motivation for being kind–maybe there was something to gain. I don’t want to criticize him, because it is not elegant to do so. I think a great artist has to investigate everything, investigate God and people. And of course he wants to be at the top; he wants to be looking down and seeing the world. But the real dream of Warhol was, that when he walked down the street, he wanted people to say, ‘Here walks the most famous person down the street.’

 

Armen Ra On His Shocking Documentary, Favorite Nightlife Stories, & Theremin

In this holiday-shortened week, with the spring pushing and pushing and pushing its way to free us from this winter of discontent, I am writing about the unusual suspects who toil or play in the clubs as they define their crafts. Yesterday it was FLXX. Today it’s Armen Ra, the master of the theremin. The theremin is a rare, eerie-sounding musical instrument, with its foremost astonishing trait explained by Armen in our interview below. Right now, Aremn is raising loot on Indiegogo for a theremin-infused feature documentary about his life: one of growing up in Iranian aristocracy and, after going on vacation in the United States, being forced to stay there due to the Iranian Revolution. A man from wealth and in exile, his story takes flight when he discovers the magic of the theremin and its effect on people. The fundraiser has six days left, and $4,000 to go to get the feature released.

Armen Ra is a well-known face and figure in the posh NY nightclub scene. His story is of ups and downs and all-arounds. It will shock and awe you. I asked him to tell me all about it
 
It’s been a long road. You are an exile,  being forced to leave Iran and live in a foreign land. Tell me about that transition.
That transition was a complete nightmare. I literally thought it was a nightmare for years. Coming from a sheltered aristocratic background, growing up in the opera, traveling the world yearly, submerged in music and art and literature. Being stuck here was like Gilligan’s Island from Hell. I started making jewelry, doing puppet shows with sets and costumes, learning about the power of beauty. We had been to the US several times already, but I didn’t speak any English. My mother and sister were fluent though, so they helped. I adapted quite fast in every way possible. I had to. It was a sudden survival, and I was unprepared at that age, but you figure things out when you have to.

Drugs, prostitution, alcohol, a zillion demons – not exactly the American dream. How’d you get out of that?
Divine intervention, self discipline, and believing in my own intelligence to eventually conquer the demons that were in reach. The light is always there. We are all light. The substance abuse was knocking holes in my aura, diminishing the light. It was not easy to get a regular job for someone like me at the time, especially when the club scene collapsed. Sometimes I had nowhere to sleep and was living in my friend’s multi-million dollar mansion. I worked at Patricia Field doing make-up, did reception at hair salons, drag shows, and whatever else I had to do to survive. I even worked at Show World in the old Times Square! Until I found a voice through the theremin, I was spiraling downward. I wanted to be great at something, and drag and clubs and doing make-up did not satisfy that urge, that quiet knowing that something else is in store, but what? A gift from the gods…waiting for me to open my eyes, to look up.

Tim Burton, Andy Warhol, Vali Myers, Salvador Dali met you, checked you out… you guys rubbed shoulders.
Being in NYC at that time and living in the East Village, it was inevitable really. I’ve always been lucky in attracting interesting people, and I was just amazed that such incredible people and artists wanted me around. It wasn’t that I had low self-esteem; I was just coming out of years of school and abuse, so it was a fabulous shock. I tell the stories in the film. It really is like mythology, and thankfully its all documented and witnessed. Being 16 and spending hours a day with Vali Myers in her room at Hotel Chelsea with people like Ira Cohen,  Andy Warhol, and Debbie Harry coming and going was insane. Vali would constantly take Polaroids of me and send them to Dali. Befriending Leigh Bowery and Thierry Mugler, dancing with Grace Jones in the Limelight DJ booth,s itting on the floor of Frankie Knuckles’ DJ booth at the World… going to a tranny hooker club with Tim Burton and Francis Ford Copolla. Yes, really. Doing the 1999 MTV VMAs in the Madonna Drag Queens segment; I represented the frozen video, that’s a story! I COULD go on! 

The theremin. You have mastered it, and yet I’ve never heard of it.
The theremin is the first electronic instrument ever. Invented by Russian Physicist Leon Theremin around 1920, it is the only instrument that is played without touching, and one of the most difficult to play. Many people use it as a sound effect. I play it as a classical instrument and a voice. My theremin has an eight-octave range, so she is like the ultimate opera singer. She sounds like Maris Callas from beyond. The theremin was used in many sci-fi and horror movies in the background. I think it fell into obscurity because it was difficult to play properly and was not easily accessible. My intention is to bring this instrument to the foreground where it belongs. It has taken me all over the world and onto some of the greatest stages. The sound affects people, it brings out emotion, and touches the heart like a beautiful voice does.

What is the film about?
The film is channeling sadness and horror into beauty, and music is the alchemy. It’s about being clear enough to receive. We are in THE LAST WEEK of our Indigogo crowd-funding campaign. We’re asking anyone who is interested in seeing this fabulous film made properly to please help support us by making donations and/or especially spreading the word about the film and the campaign. We are working very hard to create a meaningful, beautiful, high-quality work of art. Any and all support is welcomed and much appreciated.

And thank you, Steve. You helped me when I first started working in clubs by believing in me and giving me work of all kinds, and you continue to support what I am doing. I really appreciate it. You’re a real gentleman.

A Destiny’s Child-Inspired Study Guide for Art History Majors

We here at BlackBook love fine art from many eras, and we also love Beyoncé. And as often happens with these things, some genius on the Internet has decided to marry the two at last. There are plenty of image macro mashup blogs dedicated to pop music’s reigning queen, among them the fantastic Downton Abbeyoncé, but Beyoncé Art History works particularly well, as there’s a wealth of material on both sides of the equation and can pull from enough different eras and works—both from Bey and the art world—to keep things fresh, or at least as fresh as a meme can possibly last.

And even in the blog’s short lifespan so far, there have been some pretty excellent juxtapositions. “Ring the Alarm” meets Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks; Fernando Botero’s nudes ask us if we are ready for this jelly. Artemisia Gentileschi’s depiction of Judith slaying Holofernes is set to “Independent Women, Part I” and, perhaps best of all, “I Need a Soldier” is mashed up with Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii.” There are some other gems too, but we don’t want to give away the whole damn blog.

So, Art History majors awaiting finals week and a lifetime of people flogging the dead-horse question of what you’re going to do with your life, take comfort in this handy study guide, and the knowledge that if you can mash up your art knowledge with an ability to make memes, you will probably get a book deal and be pretty much set for life. 

Stolen Dalí Mailed Back To UES Gallery

Case closed. Back to your donuts, coppers. The $150K Salvador Dalí painting stolen last week in broad daylight from an Upper East Side gallery has returned. In fact, it was mailed back. What polite thieves!

Last week, a man removed the painting Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio off the wall of the Venus Over Manhattan gallery, stuffed it in a shopping bag, and walked out. According to The New York Post, earlier this week the gallery received an email reading "Cartel on its way back to you already," with an Express Mail tracking number. As promised, the 11-inch painting arrived "in pristine condition" at John F. Kennedy International Airport, where it was intercepted by police. Not surprisingly, the return address appears to be fake. 

A spokesperson for the investigation said its difficult to sell stolen artwork "because they’re hot," which I think is movie gangster slang for "everyone’s going to know it’s stolen." Thus, it’s still unclear who jacked the painting in the first place or why. But rest assured knowing a rich person now has his very expensive painting back.

$150K Dalí Painting Jacked From Upper East Side Gallery

Galleristas must have thought their eyeballs were melting. But no, a man really did walk into Venus Over Manhattan Art Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and steal a Salvador Dalí painting without being caught. You might even call the whole incident surreal. (Art joke!)

Police say a man removed the 11-inch "Cartel de Don Juan Tenorio" from the wall, placed the watercolor in a black shopping bag, and walked out. Security cameras depict the thief as the 35- to 45-years-old with a receding hairline — rather attractive, I should say. I cannot say the same for his taste in Surrealist art. The jacked Dalí is a mess of sloppy reds, browns and black. Alas, it’s a sloppy mess worth $150,000.

The aggrieved gallery owner is Adam Lindemann, a prep-school educated billionaire’s son who is a radio station honcho and New York Observer columnist. It’s difficult to feel sympathy for a man described by ArtNet as "the prince of the one percent." Ironically, given the crime, Lindemann’s money came from the invention of the first soft contact lens. 

Dali Miami Brings Magic Surrealism to Miami

Call it the ultimate surrealist presentation. Dali Miami is set to shake up the artistic establishment when it unveils its 200-piece collection at the Moore Building in Design District, a galaxy far away from the confines of any of the largely underwhelming local museums. In addition to sculptures, paintings, and whatnots, there will be a continuous showing of the 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, the iconic 17-minute French film that explores the destructive elements of the psyche and unconsciousness, collaboration between Salvador Dali and director Luis Buñuel. Not phantasmagoric enough for ya? Consider this: for the opening night celebrity chef Adrianne Calvo will recreate recipes inspired by Les Diners de Gala, the cookbook Dali completed as an homage to his wife Gala. A test pilot for what organizers hope to become a jacked-up artistic tour de force, Dali Miami is as ambitious as the eccentric artists, who drove around in a Rolls Royce filled to the max with cauliflower. And if all goes according to the master plan, the producers are taking this show on the road.

Dali Miami is the brainchild of Michael Rosen, president and CEO of Colored Thumb, a driving force behind many of the area’s top art exhibits, including Art Basel, Art Expo and RedDot Fair. “I got a chance to meet a lot of the private collectors,” Rosen, who was the publisher and dealer for Miami pop artist Romero Britto, explained. “One of them had several Dali pieces and from that grew the idea to build a large exhibit. And we managed to put together something not many people have had the chance to see.” While there will be many noteworthy pieces on display, there is one stand out. “We were able to secure Venus de Milo with Drawers for the show. That’s pretty big,” Rosen added proudly.

The exhibit, put together in incredible six months and predictably on a shoestring budget, is loosely build around two central themes in Dali’s work: the natural and the literary worlds. “There was a lot of angst and a lot of alienation going on the time Dali was beginning to work,” explained Reed V. Horth, an art dealer and show’s curator. “Much like today with the arrival of new technologies, people worried. That’s why I find Dali to be so relevant now.”

“He was one of the artists,” Reed continued, “who explored the sentiments around him and arrived to juxtaposition the soft and the hard, the male and the female, the good and the ridiculous. While he was an incredibly prolific artist, for the purposes of telling a story here we decided to stick to those two themes.”

Clear as that may be, there is an obvious awry quality not only to the artist but the exhibit itself. “We felt strongly about bringing this show to a space that defined convention,” explained Horth, who deals art virtually, doesn’t own TV and has a propensity for bicycles, admitting that the surreal quality synonymous with his favorite artist has resonated in his personal life. “We hope to tell the story of Dali, who was the original showman — way before Warhol and the rest of the bunch — in a way that feels organic to him. That’s why everything about the show is slightly off. I was so influenced by this ‘off’ characteristic in Dali that it has affected the way I live, how my house looks, or how I do business. Everything is just a little off.”

Miami, which is turning into a Mecca for Latin and South American arts, oddly lacks a proper museum outlet on par with the hoopla surrounding Art Basel and company. Dali Miami fills in the void that is left by local museums that seem to lack the ability to deliver special exhibits that would ultimately cement Miami’s claim as the destination for modern/contemporary art. “Miami has the capability to be more pivotal in the art world,” explains Horth. “L.A. has lately redefined itself as a force because of the MOCA’s ability to show spectacular art. We can’t really say the same, now can we? Miami does have fantastic private collections that are amazing; museums…I guess that’s something that is still developing.”

There is talk of turning this production into a regularly scheduled touring vehicle, aiming not only to showcase an artist in an unconventional fashion, but also to let the culturists know that artistically Miami means business.

And that, we’ll venture to say, would make The Dali muy pleased.

Salvador Dali Museum Slated to Open 1/11/11

According to my friend, who will probably kill me for surrendering some of his best, most scandalous Vegas memories (he works in a high-end club), here’s a few things you and I didn’t know. Zac Efron is a huge cokehead (oh, the irony). Speaking of heads, Vin Diesel gives it—to boys—in public-ish bathrooms. And Jason Statham is in fact not human (check his colon). Whether these stories are true or not, I can finally get that off my chest. It’s also the perfect segue into another uncommon fact: the majority of famed Surrealist painter Salvador Dali’s masterworks are not in Spain, but in St. Petersburg, Florida. Who woulda thought?

The Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, FL, which began construction in 2008, is slated to open 1/11/11 at 1:11 am. The new, $36 million museum will be double in size (to 66,500 square feet) and will house a massive, 2,140-piece collection. The building will be super-extra hurricane proof: the roof itself is 12-inch thick solid concrete and the walls are 18-inch thick. Apparently, the original museum opened back in 1982, but because there was no good reason for me to visit St. Petersburg, Florida, it was never on my radar. Does this mean I have a real reason to visit the Sunshine State in the new year? Eh. It would help if Zac, Vin, and Jason made cameos, but then you’d have to bring Vegas.

Birds on Trays, Period

The gentleman you see to the left of you is described as “Mysterious crow conquistador,” and he reminds me of something out of the nightmares of Edgar Allan Poe, as imagined by Salvador Dali. And I love him. If you want a tray with his stately image, as well as ones with his comrades “Humming bird courtier” and an “Avian writer in high style period costume,” then head here for the last one left on sale.