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 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.
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.
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.’