12.10.01: We went over to visit Ultra Violet at her penthouse on the Upper East Side. As you can see, her front lawn is the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and she looks across to Central Park West, and north to the New Jersey Palisades, and south to all the rest of Manhattan and Staten Island and New Jersey. We went to meet Ultra Violet but immediately, as always happens in these instances, we were enraptured, enthralled, enchanted, entranced by the view.
Ultra Violet. How ever did she get that name? She was a French girl who came to New York in the early 60s and met Andy Warhol. “I’ll make you famous,” he said, which, she added, he often said to someone new he was meeting. He was making movies then. Very far out, like everything he was doing then. Time takes care of the “far out” of course. But in those days, when Warhol was still very new to the culture, he was far out.
She was born Isabelle Dufresne and she grew up in France. She says she was “born rebellious.” When she was six years old she decided she was going to walk to Paris to get her “hair curled.” Hundreds and hundreds of miles. She got a few blocks down the road before her family went after her. But that, she said, marked her consciousness of herself: she was a girl who was going out to see the world. When she was old enough she came to New York. And met Warhol. She refers to him in retrospect as Warhol, not Andy.
The first thing Andy wanted to do was to change her name. Andy, playing mogul, first thought of Polly Esther. And then Notre Dame. And then Cleo Patra. Then someone suggested Ultra Violet, and the very young Isabelle, who was already captivated by the power of “light,” chose that name. And ever after in the culture of Warhol, Ultra Violet has also been associated with violet and the various shades of purple. Although she herself prefers magenta.
Warhol’s filmmaking, which is now known by all the experts and the film buffs, was to plant the camera in front of the “actors” and let it go. For hours and hours. If you weren’t in the right frame of mind, or ready for it, sitting there in the dark theatre for hours and hours watching Not Much happening on the screen could get very … boring. Which meant that you didn’t get it. There were a lot of us, the not getting it types, but as we came to see: we didn’t matter. Sometimes, Ultra said, he turned on the camera “without film.”
So Isabelle became Ultra Violet, or Ultra, which is what a lot of people still call her. I don’t know if anyone calls her Isabelle anymore. This was in the mid- to late Sixties, when the 60s were really becoming what they are remembered for. And that was 40-45 years ago.
Today, she is a mature woman. Very friendly on first meeting. We met her first as she looked through her bedroom window on the second floor of her duplex penthouse. JH took a picture of her. She said in this light “I’ll probably look like a witch,” and then she laughed.
When one enters the hallway staircase that leads to the penthouse, one is instantly confronted with a mist of creamy white — the stairs, the banisters, the walls, the ceilings and the sills. It’s so brilliant as to give the impression that the color is in the vapors of the air. Already disarming. Then at the top of the stairs, comes the terrace and the city and world all around it. More disarming.
We had to wait a few minutes for her, so we went in and looked around. It’s a heavenly apartment, way up there above the town. The view of the reservoir is the first Wow, but all the views are not only magnificent but fascinating for the details of what you can see. She’s located way up on the East Side on a block very close to Fifth.
Inside, there is a very tall, two-story tall living room with the famous Warhol turned sideways since the room isn’t wide enough to accommodate it horizontally. On either side are large paned windows flooding the room with light. Outside there were the exciting lavender-grey winter storm clouds gathering giving a bright almost ultra-violet light. Off the living room is a small kitchen, with the Campbell soup cans lined up along a high shelf. The walls are hung with Warhol’s works but mainly Ultra’s work, which are the neon rainbows and images of technology and angels, or images of the refracted light of the prism.
It’s a very homey apartment, with that laid-back artist’s studio atmosphere. You feel it even before meeting its owner. It’s very relaxed. You can imagine how wonderful it must be when there are rainstorms outside, surrounding you with nature’s drama, yet you are protected by this cozy little penthouse overlooking the City.
A few minutes later Ultra entered and introduced herself. She’s a woman of medium height with a presence to her stature. She was dressed, as you can see, in a violet velvet coat with rhinestone U.V. pins on one lapel. 35 years after meeting Warhol, she looks to be the older woman that she is. But there is nevertheless a quality about her that one usually only sees in artists, or women who lead creative and non-conforming lives. It is partly a sophistication, a worldliness, but also something else. How shall I put it? There is a youthfulness in the bearing, an outre-ness, an almost outrageousness that reflects the flaming youth and still ignites. It’s a very stylish womanliness, with the allure of wisdom. And of course sex. Ultra Violet has all that. And more.
We sat down to talk while JH took photographs. So it was an official interview. She is very relaxed company made more charming by her French accent which also never interferes with making herself understood. I never know what to ask so I always ask where someone comes from.
She’s been away from this country for the past six years caring for her father in Nice who recently died at 94. She is glad to be back, however. Why? Because “this is a superior continent,” this is a place where people can do incredible things because this is a place of believing. And “believing gives you wings.” Wings, angels’ wings are a recurring theme in her artwork. Why angels? “Angels are beams of light.”
We talked about Warhol. She said he was charismatic like Hitler or Napoleon. “He had a great magnetism. Truman Capote called him ‘a sphinx without a riddle.'” He could get people to do things. “The Factory,” as it was called, “was a multi-level marketing organization” in which you worked “without pay.” That was part of the Warhol genius as well.
His pop art images “were images of the American dream,” she said. There were the images of food (no one goes hungry), and the Marilyn Monroe, and then the crashes and the electric chair, “the dream and the disaster.”
She’s written a memoir Famous For Fifteen Minutes, and today her art is her life. Her pieces all reflect images of light and technology and angels. She regards herself as a “futuristic artist.” Technology must be “accompanied by angels,” she says, quoting Andre Malraux,
“the 21st century will be spiritual or it will not be.”
We spent about two hours talking about her life, and her wonderful apartment which she acquired back in the Warhol days for a price that was so good that her father thought she “left out a digit” when reporting the price to him. She’s very happy to be back in New York after the long absence. She’s going to build a greenhouse off her living room so that she can use the light more. She has a very holistic outlook and is watchful about her diet eschewing things like coffee and alcohol and cigarettes and white sugar (“poison”).
She has such a strong image of her youth that it is impossible to not be reminded of those times. The hopefulness, the optimism, the rebellion accompanied by an outburst of creative energy, the productivity and the liberation, liberation in so many ways. Sitting there in Ultra Violet’s bright but cozy, casual, yet minimal living room, listening to her, experiencing her open-ness, her fair-ness, her quiet but unquestioning enthusiasm for life was an “up,” a moment reflecting the flames of that youth.
I could have stayed for hours basking in her “energy,” her “atmosphere,” her attitude about life. However, there comes a time when one must remember it is an interview, a kind of imposition. So shortly we said our good-byes and went back down to the street and out into the world of New York, the world inhabited by so many fascinating people and so much fascinating history, and sadness, and tragedy, and loss. And hope, and light, and angels. Including Isabelle Dufresne, Ultra Violet in her Art.