Chelsea-based artist Ultra Violet was a member of Andy Warhol’s inner circle of Superstars and today continues to produce works that mesh Mickey Mouse and Michelangelo, revolvers and circuit boards, mirrors and neon lights. This year, her work has been shown in New York, Chicago, Switzerland, and France, and she is participating in High Line Open Studios in October. A conversation with Violet is also one of the interviews included in John Wilcock’s recently re-released The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol. A new short film called Ultra Violet for Sixteen Minutes, created by David Henry Gerson, offers a glimpse into her post-Warhol world and will be screened at the Bushwick Film Festival on Friday, September 24.
After repeatedly fleeing her Catholic boarding school in France, Ultra Violet, then known as Isabelle Collin Dufresne, arrived in New York in 1953 and quickly established ties to European royalty, avant-garde artists, and Manhattan high society. Her new contacts eventually yielded dinners with Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, Yoko Ono, and John Lennon, among others, and collaborations with Salvador Dalí, who first introduced her to Warhol. Violet entered the Factory scene at the height of its time as the nerve center for creative experimentation in New York. Her memoir, Famous for 15 Minutes: My Years with Andy Warhol, described the collective Factory enterprise as follows: “The whole game is people: meeting them, getting them involved, asking them for money, pulling them into our orbit, being invited to their parties and events. Every new person is a new possibility, a link in an ever-lengthening chain, an ever-climbing ladder.”
Thomas Kiedrowski, author of the forthcoming Andy Warhol’s Address Book, and Victor Corona, a sociologist at Columbia University, recently spoke with Violet at her Chelsea studio.
What is the inspiration for your recent work? You seem drawn to Mickey Mouse.
I am not drawn to Mickey Mouse. If you can read the title, I am drawn to Michelangelo. Why? Because he was a genius, because I do not neglect what went on in the past. What I like are the wings. This is an angel. Can’t you see? This character is flying. This is not Mickey Mouse. I used to paint a lot of angels. It’s really not Mickey.
These are my Mickey Mouse glasses. I’m giving a lecture on Salvador Dalí at the High Museum next week and I’m going to be wearing these. So I’m really reading books about Dalí and boy oh boy, am I in awe from all the things he did. He did the first installation, he did the first Pop painting, he used Coca-Cola bottles in his paintings. It’s amazing the territory that this guy has covered. This guy was a genius.
Are there any artists active today whose work you particularly enjoy?
One of them is Matthew Barney. I was at Basel recently where I showed my work and he had a huge installation that was out of this world. Anselm Kiefer, a German in America. Even Damien Hirst, you know, he has invented something.
More generally, are there any elements in contemporary American culture that you find interesting?
I think we have entered into a new era. It’s a global era. It’s instant communication. But the question is what do we communicate? That’s the real question. I think we are in total decadence.
So you see the same kind of decadence in popular culture?
Listen, we are a worshipping, idolatric civilization. When you buy a painting for $80 million, you’re buying each Coca-Cola bottle for a million and more because they’re not eighty. So what is that? It’s the golden calf all over again. That’s where Damien Hirst is pretty clever because he’s doing the golden calf, which is quite something. All the civilizations that went into idolatry—we do, they bow in front of those things—perish. I was showing my work in Basel for the first time in my life. My conclusion from being there was, “Wow, this is the temple of worship, and how can I enter the temple of worship?’ [Laughs] But yet, keeping a certain integrity. If I look into my mirror, I have to like myself. Anyway, so it’s quite a dilemma. And you have to play the game, you have to cheat and lie and flirt.
What about New York as a center for artistic innovation? Are you hopeful about the city’s future?
Well, you have a few centers. You have London, you have Berlin, you have Switzerland, that’s where the money is. Why is the number one fair in Basel? Because that’s where all the money is. So, there are different centers, I think, and New York maybe has lost some of its supremacy which it did have maybe in the 60s and 70s, but now it’s more diversified I think. London is booming too.
But the most interesting question which you have not asked is: what should an artist be doing in 2010 or 2011? That’s the real question, which is very hard to answer, and I can’t even say I have a ready made answer.
Well, maybe it’s a different question altogether but how do you see your own work developing?
I think, as an artist to be seen, you have to do spectacular things. If you do a little painting that you put on a wall with a little nail, forget it. Now, which are the artists today? A great one is Christo. The Gates was a remarkable event: it was aesthetic, it was joyful, it was like a fair. He accomplished something that no politician ever accomplished: getting 100,000 people together, at his own expense. But ok, it cost Christo $21 million to put up The Gates. And that was the first time that he did not borrow money from the bank because before he used to borrow money from the bank. So, it’s telling you, if you want your work to be seen, you need about $21 million [Laughs].
Oh no, I really don’t know. Of course it has to be original. It should be monumental. I guess what Warhol did, which was very clever, in the 60s—let’s backtrack—in the 60s, the USA became the uncontested leader of the world, so what Warhol did was American-made images: the front page of the paper, Americana, the American dream he represented. What’s the American dream? The dollar sign, the glamour, the fame, the flowers, the first man walking on the moon, that’s the crowning of the American dream, extraordinary. What’s great about Warhol—and nobody sees it that way, they say ‘Oh, he has pretty color,’—he also did the reversal of the dream: the disasters, dream and disasters, those are probably his greatest paintings. What are the disasters? Electric chair, American-made. Supposedly you die without pain; not so. They electrocuted a young boy, I think he was 16 years old. He was ejected from the chair, he was burned like a burnt chicken. So, this is where [Warhol is] great. But the conclusion of Warhol’s work is not the American dream, nor the disaster, the reversal of the dream. It’s what? What work was he doing the two last years before he died? Question [pointing to the interviewers].
Jesus, The Last Supper
Which means what? Religious work, which means it’s not the dream nor the disaster. We are spiritual beings with a body. What matters is where you’re coming from and where you’re going. And he was very intuitive and he knew that the end was near.
Co-author of this interview is Thomas Kiedrowski:
Thomas Kiedrowski is an independent scholar and author of the forthcoming Andy Warhol’s Address Book, to be published in spring 2010. He received a B.F.A. in film from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and lives in New York City. He also offers tours of sites frequented by Warhol and other Factory regulars around Manhattan (warholtour.com).