Ultra Violet, Jan. 26-Feb. 18, 2006 at Stefan Stux Gallery, 530 W. 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Ultra Violet, a great beauty who became first a Warhol superstar and then his nemesis, now has the profile of a young artist trying to succeed. Her debut exhibition in New York’s Chelsea art neighborhood was recently on view at the Stux Gallery. On the day of the opening, the artist, dressed in a mannish outfit, checked the reactions of visitors, somewhat nervously.
On the walls were several paintings of a winged Mickey Mouse flying in front of a rainbow. There were also rainbows made out of thin neon tubes and disks radiating diffused light. On a lower level in the back, displayed on a classical-style pedestal, was a sad doll with moving wings dressed in a long faded gown made of a parachute, desporting a black sac of explosives on her chest. Titiled The Light Shineth in Darkness and the Darkness Comprehendeth It Not, that piece was the artist’s homage to IX XI, as she calls it in a neon work.
Although fit and still handsome, Ultra of course is no spring chicken. Her heyday came, as seen in photographs also included in the Stux show, when she met Salvador Dalí in New York in the ‘60s, becoming famous as a groupie in Andy Warhol’s entourage. Her name changed then from Isabelle Collin Dufrene to "Ultra Violet," in reference to the color she began to wear from head to toe.
Some of the photos are stills from Warhol films. Among them is a series of close-up shots of her passionately kissing Ed Ruscha. Several large photos show the artist’s glamorous, photogenic face with or without false eyelashes. She also appears in a variety of attires, including a man’s outfit, and does not seem to mind posing in the nude. John Chamberlain, who was one of her lovers, took several of these pictures.
Unlike many of Warhol’s followers, Ultra Violet survived the Factory days. And, while her comrades in sin mostly indulged in dangerous pastimes with sex and with drugs, Ultra also kept a diary, from which came her autobiography, Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol.
This book, first published in 1988, had international appeal, not only for its titillating passages, but for its insights into the mysterious, baffling and manipulative Warhol. A whole chapter is devoted to her conversations with Andy on the subject of sex -- from today’s vantage, it seems a real tragedy that Warhol died before the age of internet erotica. Not only did he enjoy the sight of crazy orgies, but he liked the sound of them on the telephone. He and Truman Capote apparently engaged daily in telephone sex. No doubt Warhol would have adored the way letters appear on a computer screen to form seductive chains of words and sexually arousing dialogue.
How did a provincial bien elevée bourgeois French girl from Grenoble land in New York in the early ‘50s, and how did she enter the circles of first Dalí and then Warhol?
Ultra Violet’s youth is that of a strict Catholic girlhood and of schooling by nuns; it’s about a pre-‘68 rebellious spirit with a precocious sexual curiosity that was sadly assuaged through rape -- the rapist being a family friend. After that mishap, it became clear to both the young Isabelle and her family that she should leave home, which she did by joining an older sister who was attending finishing school in New York.
Promiscuous by her own account, she used her glamorous physique, her personal sense of style and a menial job at the French cultural services to enter and exploit the world of the rich, the powerful, the talented and the fashionable.
Ultra Violet’s most endearing trait is her candor. On meeting Salvador Dalí she writes: "The moment we exchange glances" (it is 1960 and she is delivering an 18th century Russian enamel spoon that he is buying from a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen of Egypt who happens to be a friend of hers) "we are certain we are made for each other. I tell him that I too, paint a little, a very little. He invites me to come back to his studio at five after his siesta." She comes back, poses for him in the nude and after a bit of "tongue touching" they have dinner at La Caravelle. He talks to her about Freud, whom he went to meet in London in 1938, and he tells her with his famously fake naiveté, "I wanted to psychoanalyze him, using my paranoiac critic method. He would not let me."
Over dinner, she and Dalí exchange pleasantries.
He: "Your elbow is as edible as the heel of a loaf of bread."
She: "Your lips are as edible as peeled muscat grapes."
He: "No, as Phidias’ testicles, which I am now painting."
In the next few months, not only do they become one of the most photographed couples in New York and Paris, but she gets to meet the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Andre Malraux, Watson and Crick and, one day in 1963 during tea with Dalí at the Saint Regis. . . Andy Warhol, sniffing around the famed Surrealist.
"Oh, you’re so beautiful," Warhol apparently says to her that day, "you should be on film. Can we do a movie together?" As she soon discovers, he uses those words with hundreds of naïve or ambitious young things who daily cross his path. They are invited to the factory where they quickly find out that they don’t need to know a thing about acting as long as they let themselves be filmed naked, and never say no to any quirky sex act requested of them -- as Ultra herself finds out and acquiesces to.
Of this period of her life she writes in her book, "Ultra Violet becomes the unleashed exhibitionist, the mad heedless creature, chasing headlines, totally uninhibited, an unabashed freak" (p. 85). But not so mad as to forget to take notes on the words of her laconic new companion.
Ultra (in front of an Electric Chair painting): "Is there more than one manufacturer of electric chairs?"
Warhol: "Gee, I don’t know."
Ultra: "Are they signed the way a Thonet chair is signed?"
Warhol (shrugs): "Just a serial number."
Ultra: "I like it. You are upfront."
Warhol: "What do you mean?"
Ultra: "The death element is obvious."
Ultra: "It’s honest subliminal advertising."
Warhol: "What do you mean?"
Ultra: "You know how Madison Avenue uses death symbols to lure the customers."
Warhol: "No, tell me."
"Andy loves to play dumb," observes Ultra, who apparently also likes to play dumb -- as does Salvador Dalí. Those of us who wonder what Warhol and Ultra Violet could possibly have shared need only think of Dalí, whose outrageous behavior and famous "play dumb" commentaries did not go unnoticed or unlearned by fame-mongering Ultra and Andy.
Though Ultra was somewhat older than the rest of the Warhol groupies, and in better physical and mental shape, her depraved life style was to take its toll. She disappears from the scene and writes her memoirs. After that, she flounders some more, and discovers God. Living back in France, in Nice on the Cote d’Azur, she takes care of an aging father until his last day and realizes her true calling as an artist. Like a born-again Christian, she turns her head toward Heaven and finds God’s presence in the beautiful skies above the Mediterranean.
Skies with gentle clouds are all over her Chelsea studio these days -- on walls, on furniture, on mirrors, on handmade books and on large canvases. Sometimes an "angel" is there too, pictured on the back of a flying missile, drawn on a baroque mirror, depicted as a winged Mickey Mouse or, in one case, as a winged bride. That Dalíesque, life-size angel seemingly ready to fly out of the window is a mannequin dressed in a second-hand wedding gown and long train, its large white wings daubed in blue paint.
In conversation, the artist makes a point of asking visitors their views on the important issues of the day -- the way Warhol used to do. And, like Warhol, she claims that her work fixates on the most splendid and on the most gruesome, both. As an example, she shows me a large book with extraordinary beautiful color photographs of atomic explosions in the Nevada desert, which she has tried to replicate in paint.
And then, a bit reluctantly, she points toward one of several vertical paintings with a clear blue sky, and little angels falling off a tall, burning building.
Warhol would have approved.
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before, during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).