While I was beginning to believe only Millennials were obsessed with computers, Mickey Mouse and selfies, artist Ultra Violet (Isabelle Collin Dufresne) took these obsessions to the next level. She passed away on June 14th at 78 years old, but we can can remember her for the beautiful art instillations she created that prompted the viewer to interpret iconic symbols in our society in a completely different way.
In her day, Ultra Violet was a purple-haired artist who worked with some others you might’ve heard of: Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, just to name a few.
Her work was featured in the collections of Museum Pompidou in Paris, the Knokke-Heist Museum located in the Belgian municipality of Knokke-Heist, and in the private collection of Whitney Museum trustee, Beth deWoody. She operated her Willy Wonka-esque purple art studio out of both New York City and Nice, France.
She also just happened to author one of the best selling international memoir’s Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol. Not to mention there was an opera based on her life. She is that amazing.
While we can gather a lot about this wonderful artist’s life through her “Selfie” inspired art, we talked to her former assistant, Leila, to learn more about Ultra Violet’s life.
Ultra Violet stressed, “it’s important to have a look” which she seemed to commit to everyday. Did she really commit to the violet every day?
I usually worked with her at home or in her studio, where, unless she had a meeting, she didn’t wear violet. During summer she wore a lot of loose white cotton, bra sometimes on the outside of her blouse when she was at home, and in the winter she wore heavy sweaters and comfortable pants. I remember hauling up suitcases full of clothes from the basement of her Upper East Side building every time the season changed. Whenever she did have a meeting or an event to attend she would absolutely embrace the Ultra Violet image and would look incredible, typically wearing some rich shade of pink or purple. She had countless items of clothing in those colors. I remember one, really gorgeous violet crushed velvet cloak that she wore sometimes in the winter. Her entire appearance was considered – the hair, the make-up, the accessories. She was very into holistic health and natural makeup techniques. For lipstick and blush she would slice a piece of beetroot and rub it into her cheeks and lips. I always thought that was neat trick.
Did you ever help her gather items for some of her found art type pieces
Ultra was a big collector of objects and materials. Often she would ask for people’s old computers so that she could “gut” them and use the motherboards and plates in her work. She seemed to be drawn to contrasts; old, baroque-style frames meshed together with computer parts, with pop culture icons like Mickey Mouse, and with the more ephemeral, religious iconography that recurred in her work. Sometimes she would find an object she thought was interesting and keep it around for a while, studying its potential. But she wasn’t exactly a dumpster diver, and I can’t recall scavenging anything with her or on her behalf. She’d sometimes be looking for something specific – a transparent angel figurine, for instance – and would ask me to keep my eyes open when out in the city.
She seemed to be very interested in Angels and technology. Could you elaborate on her artistic process and inspiration?
Ultra was a very spiritual person. She was raised Catholic, though she broke with the Catholic church early on. She later converted to the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which initially I found bizarre considering the counterculture crowd she ran with in the Factory days, though perhaps that is exactly what led to her conversion. When I first began working for her she would go to church every Sunday and there were a few occasions when she hosted potlucks for church members on her terrace. She even took me with her once to church. It was funny because she asked me to accompany her after work but didn’t tell me where we were going. We took a cab to a school building, I believe somewhere close to Columbus Circle but my memory of the exact location is fuzzy. This was a week or so before hurricane Irene was due to hit NYC, and the church members had met in the school’s gym to distribute emergency packs and go over safety procedures. I don’t remember a collective prayer or anything like that, but then again we came late and left early. I just remember she introduced me to everyone as “her friend,” which I found odd because until then she had only referred to me as her assistant. She had many religious books in her apartment; not exclusively Christian or Mormon texts, but a whole range. Although she was affiliated with the Mormon Church, many references to religion in her work seemed to transcend a specific sect or denomination. She used to say that her real medium was light, and looking at much of her work you can see how she used both artificial light, like neon, and the suggestion of natural light, like images of skies and clouds, to reference something beyond the day-to-day world. I’d say God or the soul, but she might disagree with me. Not only was she very informed on the whole spectrum of belief, but on things in general. She knew, for instance, at the age of 78 how to do things on a MacBook or an iPhone that I didn’t.
What was your favorite memory together?
I had many memorable experiences with her. I remember once I was walking with her in Chinatown when we passed a restaurant where a couple of well-dressed young guys were sitting at a table outdoors, eating pizza. She stopped and asked them for two slices from their pie, one for me and one for her, and I was amazed when they gave us the slices. She was so confident and in general unafraid to ask for anything. Part of that confidence may have come with age and experience, but I also suspect she had always been bold. That’s what all the anecdotes and photographs indicate anyway. My most tender memory with her is probably the last time I saw her, in March, when I came into the city for a few days. I met her at her apartment. Though she looked healthy she mentioned she’d been under the weather recently. She seemed a little fragile, which is a word I previously never would have associated with her. After we did some computer work, she said she had a dentist appointment downtown and that she could give me a ride to the subway. I ended up in the dentist’s office with her – not because she asked me to be there, but because I knew she felt more comfortable that way. When she had finished seeing the dentist and saw I was still in the waiting room waiting for her, she’d smiled and gave me her free toothbrush, extra soft. We were whispering for a while about whether or not I thought the dentist was gay. When we walked out to the street and she was holding my arm, perhaps because it was really windy that afternoon. I got her into a cab she hugged me and said, “Thanks for saving me – again.” She’d said that because when she had pneumonia the winter before I had helped her on a few occasions, skipping class once to take her to the doctor, and staying with her for a couple of days in her apartment. I was always paid for my time, of course, but I didn’t really think of those few days as work.
Did she ever give you any sage life or art advice that really stuck with you?
All the time, although because I was in my early twenties it usually wasn’t until later reflection that I recognized the value of her words. She taught me – or forced me – to be more confident, to value myself – usually through criticism that I at first resented. In fact, when I first began working for her she criticized me a lot; for knocking into things, for lack of attention to detail, and for not being assertive enough when I spoke with people. She would comment on my relationship with my then-boyfriend, comment on my diet and the fact that I smoked cigarettes. She used to say that happiness is a choice, and she thought polluting the body was about the dumbest thing a person could do. That and not eating right, not sleeping enough, and not exercising. In terms of art, I didn’t share much of my work with her because when I worked for her it wasn’t about me but about her work. There was always work to do. She worked every day, didn’t take vacations. Her trips to Nice in France weren’t about spending time with family as much as they were about getting in the studio and meeting with potential gallerists or buyers. She’d become worn out and tired, and sometimes would take an afternoon nap, but she worked every single day, probably until the end. She’d say things like, “being an artist is so exhausting,” a sentiment I’ve heard reiterated by many artists I know or have worked with, but her work is what drove her. She never had children and was unmarried, so really it was the one thing that was most important to her.
Can you currently view her work anywhere?
Dillon Gallery represented her and they had a show recently. Her large IXXI piece is also on view at the 9/11 memorial museum.
Did she ever end up selling the original self-portrait piece?
I’m not sure. There are countless self-portrait pieces and she sold many. The original resin frame was something she’d found in Paris, but she had so many manufactured that I don’t even know which piece was the first.
Did working with her affect the way you see art?
She had a very broad range of work. Personally, I was more aesthetically drawn to some of her light sculptures, the bigger ones with the giant discs and pipes. They had a kind of art deco appeal to them, a nice balance between form and function. She was an idea artist, whereas my approach has always been more hands-on. She didn’t really have any technical ability. Instead, she negotiated and worked with a lot of assistants, sub-contractors and fabricators, which many artists do and have done for years. Warhol, Jeff Koons, and the like – people whom she knew and were her contemporaries. It was a learning experience to work with someone whose approach to making is so vastly different from my own, and working for her I definitely became more open minded in what my definition of an artist is. I learned that the idea is sometimes most of the work. For Ultra, everything else was just a technical detail, the space between A and B.
What do you think was her favorite piece she did?
Like many artists, she had recurring themes that interested her and that she generated a lot of work about. As I mentioned, she was fascinated by light; she would say our bodies have light in them, and think she felt very secure about her neon and other light sculptures. She also had considerable success with the self-portrait series, which developed throughout the time I knew and worked with her. Curiously, she also had a fair amount of gender-minded work; the all-female last supper film/performance and the Pistol Phallus prints, for instance, but I think over time she thought less about worldly issues like gender and more about spirituality and questions directed at the self.
Have you seen the opera? Or read the upcoming book?
I have not seen the opera, nor read the upcoming book. She did give me a water-damaged (and thus unsellable) copy of her autobiography “Famous for Fifteen Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol,” and I did read that. Because I worked with her in such an intimate and unpretentious setting, I wasn’t drawn in by the myth of Ultra Violet. Some people really were, and I used to roll my eyes when those people stepped into her studio and ogled at all the photos of her with Dali or Ed Rusha or Warhol. That’s what the photos were there for, to generate intrigue, but I knew Ultra as a boss and as person with flaws like the rest of us, so I didn’t get wrapped up in her semi-celebrity status. I think that was one of the reasons why she seemed to like and trust me when it came to work. I didn’t just work on art with her but on the more personal aspects of her life like her accounts, general organization and matters of health. She knew I was there to do work and that I would do just about anything she asked me to, within reason. Even if it was touching up the paint on her living room walls, revarnishing her outdoor furniture or tying up her terrace awnings before winter, it was all part of being her assistant.
How do you think the Ultra Violet legacy will continue?
I really don’t know. I think, as with many artists after their death, her name and work will surely gain value over time. Enough people know about her for that to happen. I was always surprised, however, by how few people, particularly people in my age range, knew who she was. I myself didn’t even know anything about her before I responded to her ad for an assistant. The more I worked with her and became exposed to the history of her very full, very unique life, the more I realized that she was really SOMEONE, that she had been mixed in with the upper crust of the New York art world at one time. By that I don’t just mean that she knew and was involved with famous and successful artists, but also that she knew the high society crowd that ran with them and served more or less as benefactors. She had this wonderful balance of sophisticated etiquette and charm (the chic French accent definitely helped), and a real wild-child, exciting energy. This is something she retained even as she got older. She liked to challenge people, to show them that they’re not as smart or as cultured as they think they are. It was one of the qualities I admired most about her.
After talking to Leila I think the beautiful thing about art is that it lives on as long as people are seeing it and enjoying it. While Ultra Violet is a seriously underrated artist, it is our responsibility to continue viewing her work and sharing it online for her purple legacy to live on.
images c/o: ultravioletweb.com